Today the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari in another case involving the Federal Arbitration Act. The case, Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, comes from the Ninth Circuit and raises a variation of the question from Sutter: how clear does an arbitration agreement need to be to show the parties authorized class arbitration?
My initial summary of the Ninth Circuit opinion is here. It didn’t even merit an entire post of its own, but shared time with another circuit court opinion. In my view, the issue of class arbitration has largely been hammered out. SCOTUS ruled in Stolt-Nielsen that class arbitration is only allowed if the parties’ arbitration agreement authorizes it. More recently, courts have generally concluded that courts, not arbitrators, should decide whether the parties’ arbitration agreement allows for class arbitration. Finally, state law governs the question of how to interpret whether the parties’ arbitration agreement authorizes class arbitration. Yet, now we will have a new decision on whether an interpretation of state law (interpreting ambiguity against a drafter to find class arbitration is authorized) should be preempted by the federal policy favoring arbitration (and particularly, favoring non-class arbitration).
In fact, the other two arbitration cases on SCOTUS’s docket also relate to class actions. The NLRB case (whether forcing employees to waive their right to class actions in arbitration agreements is a violation of labor statutes) is still under consideration (it was argued last October). And another upcoming case, New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, stems from a putative class action brought by independent contractors, even though the narrow issue before SCOTUS is whether an arbitrator or court should determine the applicability of the FAA.
If any Supreme Court clerk or justice had called me and asked “what are some of the really hot arbitration questions that this Court should resolve in order to ensure consistent decision-making around the country?,” class arbitration would not have been on my list. I read every arbitration opinion that issues from the federal circuit courts and state high courts, and the issues I see courts struggling with most often include delegation clauses and issues relating to non-signatories. Maybe I am not giving enough credit to the few class action opinions that come out (despite the fact that they impact many people), or alternatively maybe the Court’s emphasis on class arbitration highlights a political aspect of the cert process, or a particular interest of a majority of justices, or just the persuasiveness of this team.