Showing it will soldier on without Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court granted cert, vacated, and remanded an arbitration decision from West Virginia yesterday. Because this is the exact same treatment the Court gave a case from Hawaii’s highest court in January (and the same treatment I predicted, ahem), it suggests SCOTUS is trying to go on with business as usual.
So, what was the West Virginia case? It is the Schumacher Homes case I wrote about last July, in which that state’s highest court refused to enforce the parties’ delegation clause, even after acknowledging the rule in Rent-A-Center, because it found the word “arbitrability” was ambiguous.
This GVR (grant, vacate, and remand), although not a summary reversal because it ostensibly leaves it up to the West Virginia courts to decide what to do next, falls in line with recent arbitration summary reversals from SCOTUS. Prof. Drahozal, in an interesting article called “Error Correction and the Supreme Court’s Arbitration Docket,” helps put it in context (Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2014).
Indeed, since O.T. 2000, the proportion of summary reversals that addressed arbitration issues (4 of 83, or 4.8%) is more than double the proportion of argued cases (18 of 948, or 1.9%) that addressed arbitration issues.
What are the common characteristics of cases that receive a summary reversal? First, they misapply the FAA. But also, Prof. Drahozal points out:
The summary reversals were all in cases that originated in state rather than federal courts, and often included some suggestion that the state court disagreed with Supreme Court decisions interpreting the FAA.
Bingo! That last factor is definitely present in Schumacher Homes. In addition to calling the rule in Rent-A-Center “absurd” and an “ivory-tower interpretation of the FAA,” the opinion criticized all federal arbitration jurisprudence, explaining that the SCOTUS decisions construing the FAA “create an eye-glazing conceptual framework” that is “a tad oversubtle for sensible application” and that “the rules derived from these decisions are difficult for lawyers and judges—and nearly impossible for people of ordinary knowledge—to comprehend.”
So, here’s a tip for all state courts that want to buck the FAA, but not risk summary reversal or GVR: don’t insult SCOTUS.