Waiver of Right to Arbitrate

Echoing a holding already issued by four other circuits, the Third Circuit recently found that a defendant does not waive its right to arbitration by continuing to litigate in court, if the reason it failed to move to compel arbitration is that the motion would have been futile.  Chassen v. Fidelity Nat’l Fin., Inc., 2016 WL 4698256 (3d Cir. Sept. 8, 2016).

The case involves a class of real estate purchasers who claim they were overcharged for recording documents in New Jersey.  Although there were arbitration agreements in the relevant contracts, the defendants did not move to compel “bipolar” arbitration for two and a half years.  (Where did that term come from, Third Circuit?  Are we equating individual arbitration to a mental health condition now?)  In that time, plaintiffs served 150 non-party subpoenas and spent $50,000 on experts.

Although defendants did not attempt to explain their inaction, the Court concluded the long delay in seeking arbitration was excused.  In short, New Jersey law had nearly outlawed class action waivers in consumer arbitration clauses, so until SCOTUS decided Concepcion in 2011 (finding California’s similar rule preempted by federal law), it would not have made sense for defendants to compel arbitration.  The court reasoned that unlike in other cases of inaction, the prejudice to plaintiffs “is attributable to a change in the applicable law, not to any negligent action on the part of either party.”  It also noted that futility is a recognized exception to ripeness and administrative exhaustion, two analogous doctrines.

Other than the use of “bipolar,” none of those conclusions strikes me as odd.  But the opinion then plows some new ground.  It finds that a defendant can independently waive individual and class arbitration, because those are “substantively distinct” types of arbitration.  (And it concludes that the defendants here had a valid futility defense for both types.) Finally, the dissent points out a key piece of information: there was no class arbitration waiver in the arbitration clauses at issue.  “These clauses…do not even mention class arbitration, let alone outright prohibit it.” Which the dissent (fairly) characterizes as seriously undercutting the futility analysis.

Now that Concepcion is more than five years old, this type of case is unlikely to come up often in terms of preempted state arbitration law, but the new rules from the CFPB (and legal challenges to those regulations) could make the futility doctrine relevant again.

While state courts have been busy articulating novel interpretations of arbitration law this summer, federal courts seem intent on getting back to basics.  In recent weeks, federal appellate courts have reminded parties who has the burden of proving an agreement to arbitrate, what should happen to the case when arbitration gets compelled, how parties waive their right to arbitration, and what is a “reasoned award.”

Burden of Proof

The Eleventh Circuit took the opportunity to clarify that when the plaintiff denies the existence of an arbitration agreement, state contract law determines who has the burden of proving the existence of the agreement.  (Distancing itself from its own 1993 precedent.)  In this case, Georgia law applied, and it provided that the defendant seeking to enforce the alleged arbitration agreement bears the burden of proving a valid arbitration agreement exists.  Because the defendant credit card issuer had no proof that the plaintiff agreed to any terms at all when she completed her on-line application, and could not prove that it sent a Welcome Kit containing the arbitration agreement at issue, or even establish which cardholder agreement it sent to plaintiff, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion to compel arbitration.  Furthermore, having presented “woefully inadequate” proof with its motion, defendant was not entitled to try and prove the existence of an arbitration agreement at a later trial.  Bazemore v. Jefferson Capital Systems, LLC, 2016 WL 3608961 (11th Cir. July 5, 2016).

Just Stay

In the course of a “summary order” affirming the district court’s grant of a motion to compel arbitration, the Second Circuit took time to issue a reminder to lower courts.  In that Circuit, the language of Section 3 is read quite literally.  Section 3 says when there is an applicable arbitration agreement  the court “shall on application of one of the parties stay the trial…”.  Even if all claims are referred to arbitration, courts are not to dismiss an action if any party seeks a stay instead.   To dismiss in that instance is an abuse of discretion.    Virk v. Maple-Gate Anesthesiologists, PC, 2016 WL 3583248 (2d Cir. July 1, 2016).

Don’t Waffle, Or You’ll Waive

Everyone knows you can waive your right to arbitrate, right?  But sometimes you need a good example of someone doing that, so that you can see exactly what to avoid.  Martin v. Yasuda, 2016 WL 3924381  (9th Cir. July 21, 2016) can provide that example.  Here the putative class of students at a private cosmetology school had all signed an enrollment agreement calling for arbitration.  Yet in response to the students’ Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) case, the school moved to dismiss for a substantive failure to state a claim.  When they were not completely successful, they filed an answer in which arbitration was one of 43 affirmative defenses.  Finally, after engaging in some discovery, the defendant moved to compel arbitration, 17 months after the start of the case.  Both the district court and the appellate court found the defendant had waived its right to arbitrate.  (Key factors: defendant had told court it was not likely to enforce arbitration agreement and had forced court to decide motion on merits.)  The court also confirmed that whether a party has waived its right to arbitrate by its litigation conduct is an issue for determination by the courts, not arbitrators.

Within Reason

In arbitration, parties can usually choose among three levels of award: simple award, reasoned award, or findings of fact and conclusions of law.  But, the lines delineating those three levels are awfully fuzzy and undefined.  Why does that matter?  Because a party who contracted for “findings of fact” might be able to vacate its award if the arbitrator issued only a “reasoned award.”  In the spirit of helpfulness, the Second Circuit defined a “reasoned award” in Leeward Construction Co. v. American Univ. of Antigua-College of Medicine, 2016 WL 3457266 (2d Cir. June 24, 2016).  They held “that a reasoned award is something more than a line or two of unexplained conclusions, but something less than full findings of fact and conclusions of law on each issue raised before the panel.  A reasoned award sets forth the basic reasoning of the arbitral panel on the central issue or issues raised before it.  It need not delve into every argument made by the parties.”

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Continuing last week’s theme of “States Gone Wild,” here are three more oddball summer decisions from state supreme courts. All of them find interesting paths around federal case law (IMHO).

Georgia Says Class Complaint Is Deemed Arbitration Opt Out For All Class Members

In Bickerstaff v. SunTrust Bank, 2016 WL 3693778 (Ga. July 8, 2016), the issue was whether a class action challenging overdraft fees could proceed in court. The class complaint was filed in July of 2010, and in August of 2010 (in response to a court ruling), the bank amended its deposit agreement to allow customers to opt out of arbitration. In part, the amended arbitration agreement stated:

To reject this arbitration agreement provision, you must send the Bank written notice of your decision … by the later of October 1, 2010 or within forty-five (45) days of the opening of your Account. Such notice must include a statement that you wish to reject the arbitration agreement … along with your name, address, account name, account number and your signature … This is the sole and only method by which you can reject this arbitration agreement provision.

Just after October 1, the bank moved to compel arbitration. The issue of whether the complaint could serve as the formal rejection of the arbitration provision ended up before the Supreme Court of Georgia. That court unanimously held that “the filing of Bickerstaff’s complaint, thereby signaling his rejection of the arbitration agreement, tolled the time in which the putative class members were required to notify SunTrust of their intent to reject arbitration.”

In its analysis, the court leaned heavily on Georgia cases in the class action context, finding that class representatives may satisfy statutory or contractual preconditions on behalf of those class members who remain in the class after it is certified. “[T]he satisfaction of a precondition for suit by the class plaintiff typically avoids the necessity for each class member to satisfy the precondition individually.” Curiously absent from the decision was any discussion of Stolt-Nielsen, or Section 2 of the FAA (requiring strict enforcement of valid arbitration agreements), or the preemption rulings in Concepcion and DirecTV.

[Thanks to a reader for sending me this case before Westlaw did.]

Split South Carolina Court Reasons Its Way Around Rent-A-Center

Our next state court ruling at least acknowledges the relevant federal precedent. In Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., 2016 WL 3660720 (S.C. July 6, 2016), the issue was whether a husband and wife had to arbitrate their construction defect claims against their builder. Section 14 of the parties’ agreement was entitled “warranties and dispute resolution,” and made up of ten subparagraphs covering topics from whether the builder could remove existing trees, to the private warranty it provided, to the requirement to arbitrate disputes. The arbitration agreement was in 14(g), with its own subheading “mandatory binding arbitration.” The builder moved to compel arbitration and the homeowners argued that clauses within Section 14 made the arbitration agreement unconscionable.

The builder relied on the severability doctrine, first set forth in Prima Paint but reiterated in Buckeye Check Cashing and Rent-A-Center, which holds that courts may only decide disputes about the validity of the arbitration agreement itself, all other challenges to the contract must be determined by the arbitrator. The builder defined the arbitration agreement as 14(g), which the homeowners did not challenge, while the homeowners defined the arbitration agreement as all of Section 14. The court agreed with the homeowners, relying largely on the title of Section 14, and the fact that the subparagraphs had “cross-references to one another, intertwining the subparagraphs so as to constitute a single provision.”

Having defined the arbitration agreement to include all of Section 14, the court went on to find the arbitration agreement unconscionable due to its disclaiming implied warranty claims and prohibiting monetary damages. (As Section 14 had no severability clause, the court refused to analyze whether the unconscionable portions could be stricken.) Two justices dissented, noting that “the majority has not followed controlling precedent of the United States Supreme Court.” (That should help the cert petition…)

[NOTE TO DRAFTERS: Move your arbitration agreement into a separate paragraph with its own heading right now! Give it its own severability clause. Then you can keep reading.]

North Dakota Forgets To Read The Footnotes

Not to be left out of the “buck SCOTUS” summer trend, North Dakota issued a decision finding that a district court did not err in compelling arbitration of the formation of the parties’ contract. 26th Street Hospitality, LLP v. REAL Builders, Inc., 2016 WL 3022054 (N.D. May 26, 2016). One party to the contract argued the contract was invalid because it was executed without the knowledge and authority of the Partnership, as proper consent had not been received pursuant to the company’s charter documents. Nevertheless, the district court compelled arbitration, without deciding the formation of the contract. The North Dakota Supreme Court unanimously found the district court did not err in refusing to decide formation before ordering arbitration, relying on Rent-A-Center’s discussion of severability.   What it did not discuss, however, is 1) the first footnote in Buckeye Check Cashing which specifically states that the severability doctrine does not apply when the issue is “whether any agreement between the alleged obligor and obligee was ever concluded,” or 2) the fact that a majority of federal courts have concluded formation is an issue for courts, not arbitrators.

As long as we’re talking state courts…

Two state supreme courts have new decisions on waiver. The Texas Supreme Court found a company did not waive its right to arbitrate claims with individual customers in RSL Funding, LLC v. Pippins, 2016 WL 3568134 (Tex. 2016). Importantly, the Texas court said that for Party A to waive its right to arbitrate with Party B, the court will only analyze Party A’s litigation conduct with respect to Party B after a dispute arises. In this case, the majority of the company’s litigation conduct at issue was directed at third parties before a dispute arose with the individual customers.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina found a nursing home waived its right to arbitrate wrongful death claims in Johnson v. Heritage Healthcare of Estill, 2016 WL 3022394 (S.C. May 25, 2016). The nursing home had litigated over the estate’s right to records and conducted discovery before moving to compel arbitration.

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Today’s post is brought to you by the number 8.  The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a new opinion yesterday finding that a defendant who litigated in court for 8 months waived its right to arbitrate (aka, ARBITR8) plaintiff’s employment claims.  [That could be my vanity plate!!]

Messina v. North Central Distributing, Inc., 2016 WL 2640911 (8th Cir. May 10, 2016), involved an employee’s claims of wrongful termination and breach of contract against his employer.  The employee brought those claims in Minnesota state court.  In response, the employer removed the case to federal court, filed an answer asserting 24 affirmative defenses, and later moved to transfer the case to federal court in California.  Only after the federal judge in Minnesota denied the motion to transfer did the employer move to compel arbitration.  That motion came eight months after the plaintiff had filed his complaint.  The district court denied the motion to compel, finding the employer had waived its right to arbitrate, and the appellate court affirmed that result.

The appellate court agreed that all three elements of the test for waiving arbitration rights were met.  First, the employer “knew of [its] existing right to arbitration,” because it had the arbitration agreement in its possession.  Second, the employer “acted inconsistently with that right” by litigating for eight months, including making two motions (removal and transfer), and filing scheduling reports that indicated the case would proceed to trial.  The court also faulted the employer for not raising arbitration at the earliest possible time — in its Answer or in the Rule 26(f) report.  And third, the employer “prejudiced the other party by these inconsistent acts,” in that it caused delay and forced the employee to respond to motions and participate in procedures not available in arbitration.

The 8th Circuit seemed most concerned about the gamesmanship, however.  It commented that “[t]he timing of [the employer’s] actions demonstrates that it ‘wanted to play heads I win, tails you lose,’ which ‘is the worst possible reason’ for failing to move for arbitration sooner than it did.”

The test used by the 8th Circuit to determine waiver of arbitration rights is similar to that used in many circuits, so this case is a good opportunity to remind parties and counsel that there are serious risks to not raising the existence of an arbitration agreement early in a case.  My rule of thumb — not yet adopted by any court — is that it should be raised within the first three months of litigation and before making any (other) affirmative motion that requires court resources.

Lots of interesting arbitration law has been made already in 2016, so here is a roundup from the first four weeks of the year. As a teaser, courts have breathed life into the effective vindication doctrine, found arbitrators cannot determine the availability of class actions, and found state laws not preempted.  More surprisingly, state courts are following SCOTUS’s interpretations of the FAA.

Effective Vindication Lives On

Although I thought Italian Colors was an “effective elimination” of the effective vindication doctrine, the Tenth Circuit affirmed its use as a defense to a motion to compel arbitration this month in Nesbitt v. FCNH, Inc., 2016 WL 53816 (10th Cir. Jan. 5, 2016).  [Side note to WestLaw: can there really have been 53,816 cases by January 5th of the year??  Or do I misunderstand the numbering system?]  In that case, class action plaintiffs in a Fair Labor Standards Act case defeated a motion to compel individual arbitrations by asserting that under the AAA Commercial Rules, each plaintiff would have to pay between $2,300 and $12,500 in arbitrator fees and could not recover attorneys’ fees.  The appellate court affirmed.

Incorporation of AAA Rules Can “Unmistakably” Delegate Some Gateway Issues, But Maybe Not the Availability of Class Actions

The Third Circuit drew what seems to me a questionable distinction between parties’ ability to delegate some substantive issues of arbitrability from others. Despite acknowledging that federal courts of appeals have universally found that when parties agree to be bound by the AAA rules, they delegate substantive arbitrability to arbitrators, the Third Circuit found that does not extend to the availability of class arbitration. Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC v. Scout Petroleum, LLC, 2016 WL 53806 (3d Cir. Jan. 5, 2015).  Recall that in general, courts are presumed to have authority to determine whether an arbitration exists, whether it is valid, and whether it covers the scope of the parties’ dispute.  But, under First Options of Chicago, a SCOTUS opinion, parties can delegate even those issues to arbitrators as long as their intent to do so is “clear and unmistakable.”  In Chesapeake Appalachia, the court repeats its pronouncement from Opalinski that the “availability of classwide arbitration” is one of those substantive questions of arbitrability that courts presumptively decide, unless parties clearly and unmistakably state otherwise.  And then it further protects courts’ ability to make that determination by holding that the parties’ incorporation of AAA rules, which explicitly allow arbitrators to determine their own jurisdiction and contain supplementary rules about class arbitration, is not sufficient to delegate the availability of classwide arbitration to arbitrators.  Drawing on statements from Sutter, the court leaned on the “great” procedural differences between bilateral and class-action arbitration to support its distinction.

Waiver of the Right to Arbitrate is an Issue Presumptively for Courts

Maybe Bryan Garner can come up with a new term for “waiving” the right to arbitrate, so that it is not the same verb as waiving the substantive claim being arbitrated. If so, that would alleviate the problem that the Supreme Court of Nevada addressed in Principal Investments, Inc. v. Harrison, 2016 WL 166011 (Nev. Jan. 14, 2016).  That court wrestled with the issue of whether a court or an arbitrator should decide if a party has waived its right to arbitrate by participating in litigation.  In other words, is that type of waiver a substantive question of arbitrability (like whether there is a valid arbitration agreement) that is presumptively for courts, or a procedural question of arbitrability that is presumptively for arbitrators?  Adding to the confusion is language from Howsam and BG Group characterizing “waiver” as an issue presumptively for arbitrators.  After canvassing other courts and finding the majority have concluded that waiver-by-litigation is presumptively for courts, the Nevada Supreme Court followed the herd.

Missouri Enforces Prima Paint’s Severability Doctrine

As I have picked on Missouri for bucking federal arbitration law, I owe it to the Show-Me State to point out that it recently (but reluctantly) followed federal precedent on severability. In Ellis v. JF Enterprises, LLC, 2016 143281 (Mo. Jan. 12, 2016), the Supreme Court of Missouri recognized that under federal precedent, a plaintiff cannot avoid an arbitration agreement by asserting the contract as a whole is void, it must point to a deficiency with the arbitration clause specifically.  As a result, the court held that “no matter what logic or fairness” undergirded the plaintiff’s argument that her auto sale was invalid, she had to arbitrate that claim.

Kentucky’s Precedent on Wrongful Death Actions is not Preempted by FAA

In Richmond Health Facilities v. Nichols, 2016 WL 192004 (6th Cir. Jan. 15, 2016), the Sixth Circuit analyzed Kentucky’s state law rule, which holds that wrongful-death claims belong only to beneficiaries, and therefore any arbitration agreement signed by a decedent cannot bind a beneficiary bringing a wrongful death claim.  The Sixth Circuit found that state law rule does not stand as an obstacle to the FAA, because it does not categorically prohibit arbitration of wrongful death claims, so was not preempted.

Lots of Action on Attorneys’ Fees

The Supreme Court of Utah held that an arbitrator cannot award attorneys’ fees incurred in confirming the arbitration award, under the Uniform Arbitration Act. Westgate Resorts, Ltd. V. Adel, 2016 WL 67717 (Utah Jan. 5, 2016).

Massachusetts’ highest court also found an arbitrator is not authorized to award attorneys’ fees due to one party’s assertion of frivolous defenses (unless the parties specifically granted the arbitrator that authority). Beacon Towers Condominium Trust v. Alex, 2015 WL 9646024 (Mass. January 7, 2016).

Similarly, the Second Circuit held that a federal district court erred in awarding attorneys’ fees and costs to the party that successfully confirmed its arbitration award. Zurich Am. Ins. Co. v. Team Tankers (2d Cir. Jan. 28, 2016).  As part of its contractual analysis, the court repeated that parties may not contract around Section Ten of the FAA.  In other words, it would not read the parties’ contract as precluding an attempt to vacate the award.

PHEW. I have now alleviated the guilt that has been weighing on me for not blogging about these cases yet.  Hope February brings a more reasonable stream of opinions!

Before I can sum up 2015 in arbitration (next post!), I need to report on some new cases coming out of the federal and state appellate courts in recent weeks.  Two are just good reminders of basic arbitration law, but the third addresses an interesting question of double recovery.

Our first “reminder” case comes from New York’s highest court.  In Cusimano v. Schnurr, 2015 WL 8787554 (N.Y. Dec. 16, 2015), that court held that the Federal Arbitration Act applies, even to intrafamily transactions among New York residents (sing: “it’s a family affaaaair…”), and even when defendants argue their family business is “passive” and has no impact on interstate commerce.  The court basically said family shmamily, look at the type of business you have and what it owns.  “The idea that the intrafamilial nature of the agreements has some bearing on whether the FAA is applicable finds no support in the caselaw.”  Instead, the fact that the family business owned commercial properties inside and outside New York was key.  (But, the plaintiffs waived their right to arbitrate by litigating aggressively for a year.)

The second “reminder” comes from the Eleventh Circuit and relates to appeal timing.  In the Wise Alloys case, 2015 WL 8119326 (11th Cir. Dec. 8, 2015), that court held that the defendant did not appeal the district court order compelling arbitration within the allowed deadline.  (The court had fun with this one, quoting Carole King to say “it’s too late…”)  Critically, the entire complaint related to the union’s effort to compel the defendant company to arbitration.  The district court compelled arbitration in June of 2012, but the company did not appeal until after the arbitration was complete and the award had been confirmed in late 2014 (well beyond the 30-day deadline in the federal rules).  The lesson from this case is that while Section 16 of the FAA commands that “interlocutory” orders compelling arbitration are not immediately appealable, not all orders compelling arbitration are interlocutory: if the only relief a complaint seeks is an order compelling arbitration, then the order granting that relief is final and immediately appealable.

The most interesting outcome in this group comes from the Ninth Circuit (with Judge Shira Scheindlin from SDNY sitting by designation on the opposite coast).  In Uthe Technology Corp. v. Aetrium, Inc., 2015 8538090 (9th Cir. Nov. 19, 2015), the plaintiff had already been awarded millions of dollars against related defendants in an arbitration and then brought a RICO claim for treble damages in U.S. federal court for the same conspiracy.  The question was whether that RICO claim was precluded by the “one satisfaction” rule that avoids double recovery.  (P.s. That arbitration lasted two decades.  Score one for litigation.)   The Ninth Circuit found the RICO claims were not precluded, largely because the arbitration claim was against a different set of defendants, and RICO provides remedies that were not available to Uthe in the arbitration, and the arbitration award specifically noted that it was made without prejudice to Uthe’s right to bring further claims in federal court.  The 9th Circuit did note that any damages in the RICO case must be offset by the sums paid as a result of the arbitral award

The issue in analyzing whether a party waived its right to arbitrate is usually whether the defendant waited too long to assert the arbitration obligation.  But, this week the Second Circuit had the opportunity to address whether a plaintiff waives its right to arbitrate by the simple fact of bringing a case in court.

In LG Electronics, Inc. v. Wi-LAN USA, Inc., 2015 WL 5254894 (2d Cir. Sept. 10, 2015), the appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision that defendant Wi-LAN had not waived its right to arbitrate.  The court found that Wi-LAN’s four month delay in asserting arbitration was not sufficient to show waiver, when LG could not prove prejudice other than litigation expenses.  Furthermore, the court noted that Wi-LAN had not waived its right to arbitration merely by bringing suit in federal court in the first place.

The Supreme Court of Alabama made that same point earlier this year in IBI Group, Michigan, LLC v. Outokumpu Stainless USA, 2015 WL 2161150 (Ala. May 9, 2015).  In that case, clients had sued the designer of their facilities in federal court.  After the parties had engaged in Rule 26 disclosures and served discovery (and even debated whether there was complete diversity of citizenship to support federal jurisdiction), the clients/plaintiffs demanded arbitration and asked the federal court to stay litigation.  In response, the designer brought its counterclaims in state court and the clients moved to compel arbitration of the state court claims.

The Alabama courts enforced the arbitration clause, despite the clients’ initial filing of the federal action.  The Alabama Supreme Court noted it had previously held that plaintiffs are not barred from exercising contractual arbitration rights just because they initiated litigation.  But the complicating factor in this case was that the arbitration agreement gave the clients the “sole discretion” to choose whether a dispute would be arbitrated or litigated, and the designer argued that once the clients made that decision, it was “irrevocable.”  The Alabama courts disagreed, interpreting the arbitration agreement to allow the clients to change their mind about the dispute resolution forum.

Finally, in a more run-of-the-mill waiver case, the Sixth Circuit recently concluded that the defendant had waived its contractual right to arbitrate by participating in federal litigation for 15 months, including filing dispositive and non-dispositive motions.  Gunn v. NPC Int’l, Inc., 2015 WL 5061545 (6th Cir. Aug. 28, 2015).

Three federal appellate courts recently affirmed lower courts’ refusal to compel arbitration.  These cases show that the federal policy favoring arbitration is not absolute – the parties must have agreed to arbitrate the claims at issue and the defendant cannot have waived its right to arbitrate by engaging in significant discovery and motion practice.

In Lloyd v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., __ F.3d __, 2015 WL 3937978 (2d Cir. June 29, 2015), the issue was whether putative class and collective actions by former financial advisors could proceed in court.  The employment agreements call for arbitration of “any claim or controversy … required to be arbitrated by the FINRA Rules … no claims shall be arbitrated on a  … collective or class-wide basis.”  The current FINRA Rules prohibit arbitration of any class or collective claims.  The employer moved to compel arbitration and the district court denied the motion, finding that plaintiffs’ class and collective action claims fall outside the scope of the arbitration clause.  The Second Circuit affirmed.  It engaged in a grammatical analysis of the arbitration clause (rejecting the employer’s argument about the “rule of the last antecedent”) and found that the phrase “required to be arbitrated by the FINRA Rules” modifies “claim or controversy.”  Therefore, because the current FINRA Rules did not require arbitration of class or collective actions, the claims could proceed in federal court.

In another case about whether the parties really intended to arbitrate their claims, the Eighth Circuit found that the plaintiff never accepted the terms of the contract containing the arbitration agreement, despite starting to perform under that contract.  LoRoad, LLC v. Global Expedition Vehicles, LLC, __ F.3d __, 2015 WL 3449847 (8th Cir. June 1, 2015).  The plaintiff and defendant had exchanged multiple revisions of the contract, until finally the defendant sent a version that plaintiff appeared to accept by wiring a deposit on the funds due under the contract and faxing the contract back with the signature of an (unauthorized) principal and “minor handwriting notations and changes.”  Later, however, plaintiff asserted “unfinished business” and threatened to rescind the contract, and the defendant suggested revising the contract.  Applying UCC and Missouri law, the Eighth Circuit found the plaintiff never accepted the contract.  Furthermore, even though every version of the agreement contained the same arbitration provision, the Eighth Circuit found “there was an enforceable agreement to arbitrate if, and only if, [plaintiff] proved there was a final, enforceable [contract].”  (Plaintiff had filed suit to compel arbitration.)

Finally, in a class action antitrust case, In re Cox Enterprises, Inc. Settop Cable Television Box Antitrust Litig., ___ F.3d __, 2015 WL 3875726 (10th Cir. June 24, 2015), the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration was denied because the court found the defendant waived its right to compel.  The appellate court found that the defendant waived its right by waiting until two years into the litigation – after moving to dismiss the claim, engaging in “extensive pretrial discovery,” and opposing class certification.  In particular, the district court was offended that the defendant’s failure to inform the court of the arbitration agreement until after class certification had wasted significant court resources and suggested an attempt at “multiple bites at the apple” and to “play heads I win, tails you lose.”

A new case from the Sixth Circuit addresses whether accountants who are resolving a dispute about payments made under an agreement can also make legal determinations about the same agreement. In a 2-1 decision, the Sixth Circuit held that the scope of the dispute clause is broad enough to allow the accountants to resolve contract interpretation issues, as long as they are “relatively simple” and “closely related to accounting.” Shy v. Navistar Int’l Corp., __ F.3d__, 2015 WL 1383106 (6th Cir. March 27, 2015).

In Shy, Navistar was obligated to make annual contributions to a trust for its retired employees. The amount of the contribution was determined by a formula. If the committee managing the trust disputed the “information or calculation” provided by Navistar to support its contribution, and the parties could not resolve the dispute, the agreement provided that an accounting firm would resolve the dispute with a final and binding decision.

In this instance, the committee disputed how Navistar classified revenue when it was applying the formula. (The dissent states that “the gravamen of the [committee’s] allegations is that Navistar is engaging in a bad faith scheme to negate its substantive contractual duty to contribute a portion of its profits to fund the benefits of its retirees.”) The committee filed suit in federal court over those issues. Navistar responded by moving to compel arbitration, and the district court denied the motion. It found the claims fell within the scope of the arbitration clause, but that Navistar had waived its right to arbitrate.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed. It found that the claims were arbitrable, and that Navistar had not waived its right to arbitrate.

Why am I writing about accountants determining the application of a financial formula on an arbitration blog? Because contract clauses that allow an appraisal process to determine a value, or an accountant to resolve a financial dispute, are generally deemed arbitration clauses under federal law, even when no derivative of the word “arbitration” appears in the clause. As long as there is an independent adjudicator, substantive standards (like a contract) that apply, an opportunity for both sides to present their case, and a final decision, the process is deemed an arbitration that falls within the FAA.

And, in this decision, the Sixth Circuit found that the bean counters who determine how the formula applies were not limited to just counting beans. Because the contract clause called for the accountants to resolve disputes over “information or calculation,” the court held the language was broad enough to also encompass how Navistar categorized the information, and even “operational practices of Navistar” if those were closely tied to the information provided to the committee. The court did not exclude questions of contract interpretation from the scope of the arbitration, finding no indication the parties intended that limitation and finding the contract disputes at issue were “relatively simple” and “closely related to accounting.”

The dissent complained that the majority took the presumption in favor of arbitration too far. It accused the majority’s holding – that the accountants could determine legal questions that are closely connected to the financial questions –of having “no limiting principle.” “If applied as a general rule, any form of misconduct or bad faith dealing, or any fundamental change in the nature of the relevant business or transaction, could be characterized as an informational dispute…”

I find this an interesting case because many industries commonly use dispute mechanisms in which a specialist of some type is called on to resolve a specific type of dispute. (A panel of doctors determine whether you qualify for disability insurance, for example, or a panel of real estate appraisers determine the value of a property.) However, drafters of these clauses should take note that these clauses will be deemed arbitration clauses, and then the broad presumption of arbitrability will apply to the scope of those clauses. So, if you don’t want your bean counter to have the power to determine whether your beans are legal, these clauses must be written with carefully demarcated boundaries.

We haven’t had a good waiver case in a while.  The First Circuit served one up last week with a flourish, teaching me multiple new words in the process (not for the first time, either).  It found that a plaintiff had waived its right to arbitrate, not by bringing its claims to court in the first place, but by waiting nine months to compel arbitration, thereby seeming to “use [] an arbitration clause as a parachute when judicial winds blow unfavorably.”

In Joca-Roca Real Estate, LLC v. Brennan, __ F.3d __, 2014 WL 6737103 (1st Cir. Dec. 1. 2014), the plaintiff alleged fraud and breach of contract stemming from an asset purchase agreement.  The agreement required arbitration.  The parties conducted significant discovery, involved the court in discovery disputes, and were scheduled for trial on February 3, 2014.  On December 6, 2013, shortly before the summary judgment deadline, the plaintiff moved to stay proceedings pending arbitration.  (First big word: the court says the plaintiff did not explain its “cunctation” in invoking the arbitration provision.)  The district court found the plaintiff had waived its right to seek arbitration.

The First Circuit affirmed.  It reiterated the rule in its circuit that mere delay in seeking arbitration is insufficient to find waiver, there must be prejudice to the non-moving party.  To analyze prejudice, the court reviews a “salmagundi” of factors.  But the court admits the prejudice requirement is “tame” and can be inferred from a long delay accompanied by significant activity in the courts. In this case, the court focused on: the fact that the parties engaged in significant discovery, that the plaintiff waited until close to trial to seek arbitration, and that the change in forum would have delayed final disposition of the case and “nullify one of the primary benefits of arbitration.”

So we know at least two things: first, if you’re appearing before the First Circuit, you should use some fifty cent words in your briefs; and second, if you are on the eve of trial, it is probably too late to compel arbitration of the claim.