A recent decision from the 10th Circuit shows there is a whole new way to invalidate an arbitration agreement.  In Citizen Potawatomi Nation v. Oklahoma, 2018 WL 718606 (10th Cir. Feb. 6, 2018), the court found the arbitration agreement unenforceable because the parties provided for de novo review of any arbitration award in federal court, which is prohibited under the Hall Street decision from SCOTUS in 2008.

The agreement at issue was a Tribal-State gaming compact between the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the State of Oklahoma.  The Compact had a dispute resolution procedure providing for arbitration under AAA rules.  But it also stated that “notwithstanding any provision of law, either party to the Compact may bring an action against the other in a federal district court for the de novo review of any arbitration award …”

The parties then had a dispute over liquor licensing and taxes, which was heard in arbitration.  The Potawatomi Nation moved to confirm the award in federal court, and argued for narrow review under FAA Section 10.  Oklahoma moved to vacate the award,  seeking de novo review of the dispute under the Compact.  The district court applied the narrow review in Section 10 and confirmed the award.

On appeal, the 10th Circuit upended the entire arbitration agreement.  It noted that the 2008 Hall Street decision makes clear that parties cannot alter the standard of review in Section 10.  It also found that the provision for de novo review could not just be severed, because it was material to the parties’ decision to choose arbitration, as evidenced by a review of the Compact as a whole.  As a result, the court found the arbitration agreement as a whole unenforceable.

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If you are an arbitrator, litigator or in-house counsel ready to advance your knowledge and skills in arbitration, join me at the ABA’s 11th Annual Arbitration Training Institute this May!  I will present on Trends in Arbitration Law (plus, it is in Miami….)

 

The Fourth Circuit issued an opinion yesterday in an under-developed area of arbitration law: when are awards “mutual, final, and definite”?  This is an important issue because under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, arbitration awards can be vacated if they don’t meet the standard of “mutual, final and, definite.”

In Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sprint Communications Co., 2018 WL 1004805 (4th Cir. Feb. 22, 2018), the parties’ lease agreement called for a three-person appraisal panel to establish the price for the renewal period.  Each party selected their own appraiser, and those two appraisers chose a third appraiser.  (Let’s just call him the Chair.)  In December of 2014, the Chair issued a “majority decision,” setting a payment amount and identifying two critical assumptions underlying that payment amount.  The majority decision clarified that  “[i]f either of these extraordinary assumptions are found to not be true, [the Chair] … reserves the right to withdraw his assent.”   A panel of AAA arbitrators then determined the Majority Decision was final and binding.

Norfolk Southern then moved to confirm the Majority Decision and the district court granted the motion.  The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding the Majority Decision was not “final”.  It cited cases for the proposition that “[a]n award is not ‘final’ under the FAA if it fails to resolve an issue presented by the parties to the arbitrators.”  The court focused on the Chair’s reservation of his right to withdraw his assent as the key aspect of the Majority Decision that made it lack finality.  It wrote: the Chair “did not merely base his assent on certain assumptions, but rather reserved the right to withdraw his assent if his assumptions proved to be incorrect. This outcome cannot be squared with any conception of ‘finality.'”

The Fourth Circuit remanded to the district court with instructions to vacate the award, and told the parties to go back to arbitration for “an arbitration award that is “final” and otherwise complies with the FAA and this opinion.”

This is an important case for arbitrators to read in order to be sure they issue awards that are final and can be confirmed.

 

In today’s post, we pick up where the 4th Circuit left off a few weeks ago — with federal circuit courts finding ways to avoid enforcing arbitration agreements that are obtained years after litigation has commenced.

In Dasher v. RBC Bank (USA), __ F3d. ___, 2018 WL 832855 (11th Cir. Feb. 13, 2018), the plaintiffs alleged the bank had processed debit card transactions in such a way that it would increase overdraft charges.  Although the date is not listed, the case appears to have begun in 2009.  During the course of the litigation, the first bank was acquired by another bank (“new bank”) and issued new customer account agreements in 2012 which lacked arbitration agreements.  A motion to compel based on the arbitration clause in the earlier agreement was denied, and the new bank appealed.  At about the same time, the new bank sent customers an amended agreement that included an arbitration provision.  The amended agreement was effective in February 2013.

The new bank lost its appeal.  After the case was remanded to district court, the new bank again moved to compel arbitration, this time based on the February 2013 amendment.  The motion was made in December of 2014.  The district court denied the motion, finding the new bank had waived its right to arbitrate under the 2013 amendment.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed that the new bank could not compel arbitration, but for a different reason.  It held that the new bank failed to prove that the parties had agreed to the 2013 amendment.  The opinion found that under North Carolina law, it could consider the parties’ words and actions to determine whether the parties intended to amend the 2012 customer agreement.  And here, it concluded that the named plaintiff gave mixed responses to the proposed 2013 amendment.  Through counsel, the named plaintiff was fighting the motion to arbitrate in the courts.  But his “uncounseled response” was silence.  The court was clearly bothered by the fact that the new bank sent its proposed amendment directly to all of its customers, without advising either the plaintiffs’ attorney or the court.  Therefore, while it did not want to write “an ethics opinion,” it still refused to find the 2013 amendment was enforceable.

This is an important decision for many reasons.  First, it offers future courts an alternative argument to  “waiver” in situations like this one.  (As the 4th Circuit decision showed, waiver didn’t seem to sit well.)  Second, it offers an important reminder to defendants that courts do not take kindly to repeated motions to compel arbitration based on evolving arbitration agreements.  While they may be willing to overlook it if the “redo” motion is due to a change in the legal landscape, that’s probably the only good reason.  That means the left hand (the litigators and the in-house counsel overseeing them) always need to know what the right hand (whomever is deciding what goes in the customer contracts) is doing.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska gave an unpleasant surprise to its trial court judges last week: they cannot enforce arbitration agreements sua sponteBoyd v. Cook, 298 Neb. 819 (Feb. 2, 2018).

The case involved a messy shareholder dispute.  A key contract to the dispute contained an arbitration provision covering “any dispute or controversy arising out of” the agreement.  The suit began in April of 2014, and eventually included many parties and at least a dozen claims.  In 2016, the trial court granted partial summary judgment.  But then it had apparently had enough.  In January of 2017, the trial court “dismissed sua sponte all of the claims in the case” other than one, based on the arbitration provision in the contract.  It found it lacked jurisdiction.

After confirming its appellate jurisdiction, and noting that arbitration clauses can never defeat a court’s subject matter jurisdiction (Dude! Don’t get your hackles up), the Nebraska Supreme Court got around to the good stuff.  It found that because arbitration is a contractual right “it necessarily follows that this right may be enforced only by a party to the contract.”  Therefore, “it is improper for a court to try to enforce such a contractual right on behalf of the parties.”  Trial courts will have to resort to other tactics in getting irritating cases off their dockets.

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If the Boyd case can be described as parties ignoring their rights to arbitrate, then a Vermont case can be described as a party ignoring its potential right to litigate.  In Adams v. Barr Law Group, 2018 WL 671444 (Feb. 2, 2018), a law firm tried to recover unpaid fees from its client in arbitration.  The client participated in arbitration (without counsel) for seven months.  Then, one week before the hearing, it alleged for the first time that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable, because the law firm did not fully explain to the client the ramifications of agreeing to arbitration.  The arbitrator denied the motion to dismiss and issued an award in favor of the law firm.  The client then moved to vacate the award and lost.  On appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court explained that the client had waived its right to object to arbitration by participating fully for seven months without raising the issue.  It noted that the requirement is “designed to avoid unnecessary investments in time and resources of exactly these types.”

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Finally, another post script to the SCOTUS preview : a new cert petition raises the circuit split over the “wholly groundless” doctrine.  Maybe the Court will finally bite on one of my favorite issues!

In a recent opinion, the Fourth Circuit cited waiver as its basis to refuse to compel arbitration, but the result seems animated by a sense that the arbitration agreements were unenforceable.  Degidio v. Crazy Horse Saloon & Restaurant, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2018 WL 456905 (4th Cir. Jan. 18, 2018).

The case involved a putative collective and class action case by “exotic dancers” at a club in South Carolina, alleging they were wrongly classified as independent contractors and thereby denied minimum wages and other statutory protections.  The complaint was filed against the club in August of 2013.  [I can’t call it a saloon.  We aren’t in the wild west.]  At that point, it is undisputed that none of the potential plaintiffs had arbitration agreements with the club.

The club participated in discovery for a year.  In November and December 2014, the club obtained arbitration agreements with some of its dancers “as a condition of performing.”  In December of 2014, the club moved for summary judgment on the merits, arguing the dancers were properly classified as independent contractors.  Then in January of 2015, the club brought a motion to compel arbitration against plaintiffs who had signed arbitration agreements.  The district court denied the motion, raising concerns about the enforceability of the arbitration agreements.  The club brought a new summary judgment motion on the merits in October of 2015.  When that was denied, the club sought additional discovery on the merits, attempted to certify questions to the South Carolina Supreme Court, and then moved to compel arbitration against nine plaintiffs who had opted into the litigation after its last motion.  That motion was also denied.

The Fourth Circuit set the stage for its discussion by noting that litigants may waive their rights to arbitration by “substantially utilizing the litigation machinery.”  Without citing any further case law about waiver, the opinion proceeded to review the significant extent of the club’s use of “litigation machinery” (summarized above).  The court was particularly upset at the apparent gamesmanship:

The only possible purpose of the arbitration agreements, then, was to give [the club] an option to revisit the case in the event that the district court issued an unfavorable opinion [on summary judgment].  In other words, Crazy Horse did not seek to use arbitration as an efficient alternative to litigation; it instead used arbitration as an insurance policy in an attempt to give itself a second opportunity to evade liability.

In response to the club’s argument that it could not have moved to compel arbitration until the entertainers who had actually signed the agreements opted into the case, the court suggested that it should have informed the district court of its intentions so that the court did not waste judicial resources.  In addition, the court did not want to “give defendants a perverse incentive to wait as long as possible to compel arbitration.”

At the close of this waiver discussion, the court veers into what seems to be the heart of the matter: its conclusion that the arbitration agreements were “misleading” and “sham agreements.”  The arbitration agreements told the dancers that they only reason they could keep tips and set their own schedules was because they were independent contractors, and that would change if they joined the Degidio lawsuit.  The court noted that information was false.  Furthermore, the court was upset that the agreements were presented to plaintiffs “in a furtive manner,” evading the district court’s ability to supervise contact between the potential plaintiffs and counsel.  “The setting here was ripe for duress.”  However, the court does not undertake any analysis of unconscionability or other bases to find the agreements unenforceable under South Carolina law.  It just affirms the decision to deny the motion to compel arbitration.

I find this a puzzling case.  Normally, parties are allowed to agree to arbitrate a dispute that has already begun.  And litigation conduct before that agreement can’t count as a waiver.  Furthermore, parties don’t usually tell the judge about motions that they don’t yet have a basis to bring.  So, unless FLSA cases are really so different, this seems like a case that should have been analyzed on the validity of the arbitration agreements.  It is decidedly underhanded to convince people to sign arbitration agreements by misrepresenting the law.  Maybe South Carolina unconscionability doctrines are very difficult?

Remember when Maria sang “Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”?  Well, that seems to be what federal circuit courts are doing with their arbitration decisions recently.  This post will run through some Do Re Mis of arbitration law, as articulated by those decisions (and will close with some arbitration cases on SCOTUS’s docket).

  • In most circuits, arbitrators cannot subpoena documents in advance of an in-person hearing.  The 9th Circuit affirmed that applies within its jurisdiction as well.  CVS Health Corp. v. Vividus, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 6519942 (9th Cir. Dec. 21, 2017).
  • When an arbitration agreement calls for application of arbitral rules, and those rules give the arbitrator power to rule on her own jurisdiction, then the district court should send any dispute over arbitrability to the arbitrator.  The 4th Circuit confirmed that holding applies to JAMS rules, just as it does to AAA rules.  Simply Wireless, Inc. v. T-Mobile US, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 6374105 (4th Cir. Dec. 13, 2017).
  • Claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act are subject to arbitrationRodriguez-Depena v. Parts Authority, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 6327827 (2d Cir. Dec. 12, 2017).  (The Second Circuit is at least the third federal circuit to reach that conclusion.)
  • An arbitration agreement that carves out injunctive relief means what it saysArcher & White Sales v. Henry Schein, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 6523680 (Dec. 21, 2017).  The arbitration agreement called for arbitration of any dispute under the agreement “except for actions seeking injunctive relief and disputes related to [intellectual property].”  Plaintiff brought an antitrust action seeking damages and injunctive relief. Applying the exception, the district court denied the motion to compel arbitration and the appellate court affirmed.
  • Independent contractors are not “agents” that can be bound as a non-signatory to arbitration clauseOudani v. TF Final Mile, LLC, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 5587648 (1st Cir. Nov. 21, 2017) (refusing to compel arbitration of class action brought by independent contractors for wage-and-hour claims).
  • Ambiguous awards can be sent back to the arbitrator.  Herll v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., __ F.3d __, 2018 WL 296870 (8th Cir. Jan. 5, 2018)  (sending ambiguous “appraisal award” back to arbitrator under Minnesota’s Revised Uniform Arbitration Act.)
  • If the losing party failed to raise an argument in arbitration, it can’t use that argument to vacate the arbitration awardLaborers’ Pension Fund v. W.R. Weis Co., __ F.3d __, 2018 WL 316555 (7th Cir. Jan. 8, 2018) (finding in an ERISA dispute that one party “waived its statutory-interpretation argument by failing to raise it in the arbitration.”)
  • First Amendment arguments will not get a putative class out of arbitration with a private party.  Okay, this is not an arbitration law “basic” point, but instead one that confirms the ingenuity of plaintiffs’ class action lawyers. These plaintiffs opposed arbitration “on First Amendment grounds” and asserted there was state action because the FAA and judicial interpretations of it encourage arbitration to the point that AT&T’s actions are attributable to the state.  Roberts v. AT&T Mobility, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 6275537 (9th Cir. Dec. 11, 2017).  The 9th Circuit found no state action, and noted that plaintiffs’ arguments that the FAA violates consumers’ constitutional rights are incompatible with the Supreme Court’s decisions on arbitration.

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Now that we’ve run through those reminders on issues that arise frequently in arbitration law, let’s talk about some unsettled issues.  SCOTUS today is considering two cases involving delegation clauses and how lower courts should put its Rent-a-Center, West decision into practice:

  • New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira — this case comes from the First Circuit and raises the question whether the court should determine that the FAA applies before enforcing a delegation clause.  Why does that matter?   In this case a worker successfully argued the FAA did not govern, because he was an exempt transportation worker, and therefore the court refused to compel arbitration.  [Jan. 22 update: SCOTUS’s order list today does not include this as a grant or deny, so it will likely be considered again in February.]
  • Applied Underwriters Captive Risk Assurance Co. v. Minnieland Private Day School — this case comes from the Fourth Circuit and raises this question: Can a defense to arbitration that applies to the arbitration agreement as a whole ever be specific to the delegation clause?   [Disclosure: I was involved with this petition.] [ Jan. 22 update: SCOTUS denied cert.]

SCOTUS is also being asked to review a decision of the California Court of Appeal that refused to compel arbitration based on a state statute.  That California statute gives courts the discretion to deny enforcement of an arbitration provision when there is a possibility of conflicting rulings in pending litigation with third parties.  The cert petition asks whether the FAA preempts that California statute and will be considered in February.

Last month, SCOTUS  denied cert in another California arbitration case.  That petition, Betancourt v. Prudential Overall Supply, challenged California’s rule that private attorney general disputes cannot be arbitrated.  (SCOTUS passed on the same issue in 2015.)

Here’s hoping that in 2018 SCOTUS sticks with its recent practice of deciding at least one arbitration case per year!  And, here’s hoping the Vikings get in the Super Bowl!

Two cases recently fit in one of my favorite categories: those awards that get “un-vacated.”  These cases went through arbitration, had that arbitration award vacated by a district court, only to have the award later resurrected by an appellate court.  In today’s edition, the whiplash happens in both state and federal court.

In Caffey v. Lees, 2018 WL 327260 (R.I. Jan. 9, 2018), Lees was the winner after bringing a personal injury case in arbitration. He was awarded nearly $200,000.  Caffey moved to vacate the award, arguing every possible basis under the Rhode Island arbitration statute.  The trial court granted the motion to vacate, based on the initial failure of Lees’ counsel to disclose a document from its expert.  Not just any document, of course, but an early assessment that contradicted the expert’s eventual opinion about causation.  The trial court found that omission meant the award was procured by “undue means.”

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island noted it had not addressed “undue means” since 1858.  It looked to more recent definitions from federal circuit courts of the phrase — noting that proving undue means involves proving “nefarious intent or bad faith” or “immoral” conduct.   It found that standard was not met in this case, since the losing party had the critical document well before it submitted its final brief to the arbitrator.  Indeed, the issue of the untimely disclosure was placed before the arbitrator, and the expert explained the discrepancy.  Because the expert had a plausible explanation, the court could not agree that Lees’ counsel obtained the award through underhanded or conniving means.  The Supreme Court reinstated the award.

A case in the Ninth Circuit followed the same path.  In Sanchez v. Elizondo, 2018 WL 297352 (9th Cir. Jan. 5, 2018), an investor won a $75,000 award in a FINRA arbitration.  The district court granted the broker’s motion to vacate based on an argument that the arbitrator exceeded his powers.  In particular, the arbitrator allowed the arbitration to proceed with a single arbitrator, even after the claimant had submitted a pre-hearing brief increasing its damage request to just over the FINRA line that requires a three-arbitrator panel.  (The FINRA rules provide that claims over $100,000 must be heard by three arbitrators.  The claimant had initially requested exactly $100,000, so was assigned the single arbitrator, but then sought $125,000 in the pre-hearing brief, without amending the claim.)

The Ninth Circuit reinstated the award.  After first establishing that it had appellate jurisdiction, it considered the arbitrator’s powers.  Importantly, the court affirmed that arbitrators have discretion on matters of substance as well as matters of procedure.  In this case, FINRA rules explicitly gave the arbitrator power to interpret the FINRA Code and rules. Furthermore, the arbitrator asked the parties to address the issue of the increased damage amount, considered their arguments, and interpreted the rule to reference the amount initially claimed in the demand, instead of any amount later sought in the arbitration.  Because the arbitrator had power to interpret the rule and did so, the court found he did not exceed his powers.

These don’t seem like hard cases to me.  Given the standard for vacating awards, these arbitration awards should have been straightforward to confirm.  The fact that they weren’t suggests either that the speed of development under the FAA is difficult for advocates and judges to keep up with, or that there may be some judicial hostility toward arbitration coloring the application of the standard for vacatur.

While I was busy writing deep thoughts about arbitration at the end of 2017 (see here and here), courts around the country rudely kept churning out new arbitration opinions.  Hmph.  So, I have some catching up to do.  I start with one that has most captured my attention, Snow v. Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, ___ A.3d ___, 2017 WL 6520900 (Me. Dec. 21, 2017).  It finds an arbitration agreement between a law firm and its client unenforceable, because the law firm did not specifically explain to the client that arbitration entails a loss of a jury trial, narrower appeal rights, and different evaluation of evidence.

Susan Snow hired the Bernstein firm to handle a civil action.  The opinion does not tell us anything about Snow or her level of sophistication.  But, it does tell us that she signed Bernstein’s standard terms of engagement, which included an arbitration clause.  The arbitration clause dealt specifically with arbitrability of “fee disputes,” and then said “any other dispute that arises out of or relates to this agreement or the services provided by the law firm shall also, at the election of either party, be subject to binding arbitration.”

Snow later sued the law firm for malpractice, and the firm moved to compel arbitration.  The district court denied that motion, and the high court of Maine affirmed that ruling.  Both courts found that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because the law firm had not verbally discussed the arbitration clause with Snow and informed her of its “scope and effect”.

The Snow opinion used “public policy” to invalidate the arbitration agreement.  It largely relied on two bases for its public policy.  First, a 2002 formal opinion from the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, which found that because attorneys are fiduciaries, and arbitration “results in a client waiving significant rights,” an attorney must explain the implication of the proposed arbitration agreement so that the client can make an informed decision.  The ABA opinion requires an attorney to explain that the client is waiving a jury trial, waiving discovery, and losing a right to appeal.  Second, the Snow opinion relied on a 2011 opinion from Maine’s Professional Ethics Commission, requiring attorneys to obtain informed consent “as to the scope and effect of an arbitration requirement or a jury waiver clause.”

Because the law firm in this case did not dispute that it made no attempt to discuss the arbitration agreement with Ms. Snow before she signed it, and the court found the written arbitration agreement “was not sufficiently clear to inform her”, the court declared the arbitration agreement unenforceable.

So, what is required in Maine for an attorney to have a binding arbitration agreement with a client?  “The attorney must effectively communicate to the client that malpractice claims are covered under the agreement to arbitrate.  The attorney must also explain, or ensure that the client understands, the differences between the arbitral forum and the judicial forum, including the absence of a jury and such ‘procedural aspects of forum choice such as timing, costs, appealability, and the evaluation of evidence and credibility.'”  All of that should be done with regard to the particular client’s capacity to understand the information.

When’s the last time you heard a state supreme court espouse the importance of the right to a jury trial?  And pound on the importance of specifically and knowingly waiving that right?  Well, the Kindred case comes to mind for me.  And SCOTUS reversed Kentucky’s public policy rule in that case, finding it was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  Kindred stated noted that the Kentucky “court did exactly what Concepcion barred: adopt a legal rule hinging on the primary characteristic of an arbitration agreement–namely, a waiver of the right to go to court and receive a jury trial.”  The Snow decision does not cite to the Kindred case, even though Kindred came out in May and Snow wasn’t argued until October of 2017.  Instead, the Snow decision gives a preemption analysis that defies logic.  It says its rule “that attorneys fully inform a client of the scope and effect” of an arbitration clause “does not ‘single out’ arbitration agreements.”  Say what?  The court goes on to say that it would apply to any client “decision to waive significant rights,” but does not offer any cites to Maine law requiring attorneys to give oral primers to clients on anything other than arbitration  Indeed, the Snow opinion’s emphasis on jury trial, appealability, and evidence show it’s rule hinges on primary characteristics of arbitration, just like Kentucky’s ill-fated rule.

Despite the similarities with Kindred, would SCOTUS treat this case differently because attorneys are held to a higher standard?  The Ninth Circuit has affirmed a decision finding the arbitration clause in an lawyer’s engagement letter unconscionable.  And the ABA favors the higher standard (but I am not aware it has reconsidered its opinion in light of recent preemption decisions).  But, I have a hard time distinguishing the rule in Snow from the one that was reversed in Kindred.

Whenever people ask me why I choose arbitration law to write and talk about, one of the reasons I give is that the law is in flux, creating a demand for information and analysis.  Despite the fact that the Federal Arbitration Act has been around for over 90 years, there are constantly new developments in its interpretation.  Especially in the past two decades, with the Supreme Court highly engaged in the enforcement of arbitration agreements, the pace of legal development has quickened.  That pace means that litigants, advocates, arbitrators and judges are struggling to keep up.  It also means that even on recurring issues, there is still a lack of consensus on how to apply the rules that have been developed.

To demonstrate this point, I went back through the important cases from 2017.  I found multiple instances where two cases with very similar facts received opposite results.  And I am not talking about circuit splits over novel issues like the NLRB and “wholly groundless” exception.  I am talking about issues like formation, waiver, and non-signatories, where the “rules” have ostensibly been settled for some time.

Two Tales of Non-Signatories

These two cases involve a bank teaming up with a retail entity to issue branded credit cards that offered rewards.  The credit card agreement, which called for arbitration of disputes, was only between the consumers and the banks, however. In each case, plaintiffs sued the retail entity regarding the card and the retail entity moved to compel arbitration as a non-signatory to the credit card agreement.  In one case, White v. Sunoco, Inc., 2017 WL 3864616 (3d Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), the retail entity’s motion was denied.  In the other, Bluestem Brands, Inc. v. Shade, 2017 WL 4507090 (W. Va. Oct. 6, 2017), the retail entity’s motion was granted.  While these cases depend on the laws of different states, the courts were applying the same general estoppel rules, but reaching opposite results.

Two Tales of Waiver

Whether a party has waived its contractual right to arbitrate is an issue that comes up regularly.  Yet it remains surprisingly hard to predict whether a court will find waiver or not on any set of circumstances.

These two cases involve lenders bringing collection actions in state court for credit card debts.  In both, they were granted a default judgment.  And in both, the credit card holder later sued for problems with the collection efforts.  In response to that suit, the lenders moved to compel arbitration.  In one case, Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 156 A.3d 807 (Md. Mar. 24, 2017), the court denied the motion to compel, finding the lender had waived its rights.  In the other, Hudson v. Citibank, 387 P.3d 42 (Alaska Dec. 16, 2016), the court granted the motion to compel, finding the lender did not waive its rights.  In both cases, the analysis turned on whether the default action and later action were sufficiently related.

Two Tales of Formation

All of us do more and more of our business over mobile devices and the internet, where we don’t physically sign our name to contracts, and in fact we generally don’t read the terms and conditions.  That leads to hard legal questions over when a contract is validly formed and what terms the parties agreed to.

In these two cases, consumers have little or no choice between providers.  In order to sign up for the service, they receive one message.  In the first case, the message is “your account…[is] governed by the terms of use at [defendant’s website].”  In the second case, the message is “by creating an [] account, you agree to the TERMS OF SERVICE & PRIVACY POLICY.”  The consumers did not have to take any affirmative act to consent to the terms other than proceeding to set up their account.  In both cases, consumers later sued the provider and the providers moved to compel arbitration based on the terms available at their websites.  The consumers responded by arguing the parties had not validly formed any arbitration agreement.

In the first case, the provider was not successful in compelling arbitration.  James v. Global Tellink Corp., 852 F.3d 262 (3d Cir. Mar. 29, 2017).  In the second case, the provider was successful in compelling arbitration.  Meyer v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 868 F.3d 66 (2d Cir. Aug. 17, 2017).  Can it be that the wording difference between “your account.. is governed” and “by creating an account, you agree” explains the outcomes?  Or the fact that the consumers in the Uber case could have just clicked on the terms from the same device they were using to set up the account, while the prisoners in the first case would have had to hang up their telephones, find a computer and find the website?  The cases really give us no assistance in figuring that out.

Maybe every area of law has similar issues regarding the predictability of decisions.  But arbitration law is rife with legal “rules” to guide decision making that are so flexible as to hardly constitute rules at all.  And courts have not yet applied those rules enough times to allow them to develop a systemic approach, with internal consistency between the decisions.  And I predict that will only get worse, not better, as consumers and employees find new and creative ways to challenge arbitration agreements.

2017 was a big year in arbitration law.  We went from a country that seemed on the verge of banning arbitration in most consumer and employee contracts to a country whose federal policy embraces arbitration in nearly every context.  From my vantage point, here are the ten top developments in the last twelve months:

  1. Regulation Reversal.  At the end of 2016, federal agencies were proposing rules to ban arbitration in various settings (student loans, nursing home agreements, consumer financial contracts).  Today, all of those have been reversed.  Most were reversed by the agencies themselves (CMS, Dept of Ed.), but in the big CFPB story, it was Congress that did the reversing.
  2. New Preemption Case from SCOTUS: Kindred Nursing Ctrs v. Clark, 137 S. Ct. 1421 (May 15, 2017).  This case found Kentucky had developed a rule for analyzing “power of attorney” documents that stood as an obstacle to arbitration.  What should state supreme courts learn from this decision?  To avoid FAA preemption, don’t insult SCOTUS, don’t worship the jury, and you really should be able to cite to a case where you’ve applied the same rule outside the arbitration context.  (Read the postscript.)
  3. Arbitration on Trial.  The public discourse in 2017 was hostile to arbitration.  Arbitration was literally on trial in a case against JAMS (for an arbitrator’s alleged resume-padding), but also was figuratively on trial as a contributor to the problem for sexual harassment victims and an obstacle for consumers impacted by the fake accounts at Wells Fargo and Equifax data breaches.  However, the level of public interest in this issue does not seem high enough to capture the interest of Congress (see vote on CFPB in #1), and one primary arbitration critic in the Senate, Al Franken, will resign shortly.
  4. Waiting for NLRB.  This fight between the NLRB and the courts has been brewing for so long!  My first post about the NLRB’s decision that class action waivers in employment agreements violated the federal labor laws, and the federal courts’ disagreement with that decision, was in 2013.  This year, the drama heated up as not only did SCOTUS take the case and hear argument in October, but the Dept. of Justice shifted its support from one side to the other shortly before the argument.
  5. Circuit Split on “Wholly Groundless.”  Should courts do any spot check on arbitrability before enforcing a delegation clause?  Until this year, the only answer was yes, and that came from three circuits (Fed, 5th, 6th), but in 2017, two circuits said “no way!” because it violates SCOTUS’s precedent (10th, 11th).  This could end up on SCOTUS’s docket soon.
  6. Small Claims Court Confusion.  A number of cases took up the issue of whether a company’s effort to collect a debt in small claims court (usually pursuant to a carve out in the arbitration clause) waived its right to later enforce arbitration when that consumer sued about the debt collection effort.  E.g., Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 156 A.3d 807 (Md. Mar. 24, 2017). The case outcomes were inconsistent.
  7. Statutory Preclusion.  Attempting to avoid arbitration by holding up a statute that appears to require a claim to be heard in court is always a solid argument (but usually unavailable).  This year it came up often, but not successfully.  See McLeod v. General Mills, Inc., 854 F.3d 420 (8th Cir. 2017).
  8. Non-Signatories Get Divergent Results.  Another perennial favorite topic is defendants who want to compel the arbitration clause in a plaintiff’s contract with someone else.  This came up often again this year, but with notable losses and generally inconsistent results.  (Teaser for an upcoming post…)
  9. Clarifying That Awards Don’t Get Vacated For Trivial or Old Relationships. One area of law that courts seem to be trying to clean up this year is the standard for what types of relationships are significant enough that the award could be vacated.  What’s not enough?  Having decided a different matter with the same expert, and having been colleagues with counsel for one party 15 years before are two examples of what is not enough.
  10. Are There Exceptions To The Three Month Window For Vacating Awards?  The Ninth Circuit said yes (in the case of fraud), but the Nebraska Supreme Court found no exceptions available.  Given that this statute has been in place since 1925, this seems like the kind of thing that would have been settled by now…