Every time I think the spate of state supreme court opinions about nursing home arbitration surely must be over, another one comes out to prove me wrong.  Last week, it was one from Alabama, finding an arbitration agreement was never formed, because the resident lacked capacity and the daughter who signed on his behalf lacked power of attorney.

In Stephan v. Millennium Nursing & Rehab Ctr., 2018 WL 4846501 (Ala. Oct. 5, 2018), the decedent’s estate sued the nursing home for wrongful death.  The nursing home moved to compel arbitration.  The trial court granted the motion to compel, and the Supreme Court of Alabama reversed.

The decedent’s daughter had signed the admission paperwork in a space provided for “signature of family member responsible for patient.”  She did not have power of attorney or any other legal authority to contract in his name.  (She also happened to be personal representative of his estate.)  In reviewing the record, the court found decedent was incapable of entering into a contract on the date of the admission documents due to his dementia.  In addition, the decedent could not have understood the effect of allowing his daughter to agree to arbitrate, so she lacked apparent authority.  Furthermore, the daughter was not personally bound to the arbitration clause, and thereby precluded from suing as personal representative, because she signed in her capacity as her father’s relative, not in her own capacity.   Therefore, the arbitration agreement never existed and could not be enforced.

One justice dissented, arguing that the daughter essentially fraudulently induced the nursing home to contract.

Here’s the key question: Is this ruling preempted by the FAA, or does it otherwise run afoul of Kindred?  I don’t think so.  Kindred involved an actual power of attorney document.  This case seems to rest on principles that most states would agree with, and would apply generally to contracts of other types.  SCOTUS is also unlikely to be interested in this case since Alabama has generally been following federal precepts about arbitration.

Despite how often I talk about whack-a-mole and the tug-of-war between the state courts and SCOTUS on arbitration, the truth is that the majority of state supreme courts follow SCOTUS’s arbitration precedent (whether holding their noses or not, we don’t know). Recent weeks have given us multiple of those pro-arbitration state court decisions to highlight – from Alabama, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia.  Yes, that West Virginia.

In STV One Nineteen Senior Living, LLC v. Boyd, 2018 WL 914992 (Alabama Feb. 16, 2018), the Supreme Court of Alabama enforced the arbitration agreement in the admission documents of an assisted living facility.  The trial court had denied the facility’s motion to compel arbitration without explanation.  On appeal, the supreme court found the language of the arbitration agreement, which required arbitration of “any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to” the parties’ agreement, was broad enough to cover the tort claims asserted.

In Disano v. Argonaut Ins. Co., 2018 WL 1076522 (R.I. Feb. 28, 2018), the Supreme Court of Rhode Island refused to vacate an arbitration award.  Although the losing party argued that the panel of arbitrators had miscalculated damages, the supreme court applied a very deferential standard of review and noted that even if the arbitrators’ math skills were lacking, that “does not rise to the level necessary to vacate such an award.”

In Henry v. Cash Biz, 2018 WL 1022838 (Tex. Feb. 23, 2018), the Supreme Court of Texas found that a pay day lender did not waive its right to arbitrate by alerting the district attorney’s office to the borrowers’ conduct (issuing checks that were returned for insufficient funds).  The trial court had denied the lender’s motion to compel arbitration, the court of appeals had reversed, and the supreme court affirmed the intermediate appellate court.  It found: 1) that the borrowers’ claims of malicious prosecution were within the scope of the arbitration clause; and 2) that the lender’s status as the complainant in the criminal charge was not sufficient to prove that it “substantially invoked the judicial process.”  [Recall that Mississippi’s high court reached the opposite result in a very similar case just a few months ago.]

In another waiver case, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia held that a party’s “pre-litigation conduct” did not waive its right to arbitrate. In Chevron U.S.A. v. Bonar, 2018 WL 871567 (W. Va. Feb. 14, 2018), the trial court had denied Chevron’s motion to compel arbitration.  It found that Chevron’s decision to take actions consistent with its interpretation of the parties’ agreement had waived the right to arbitrate, because Chevron had “unilaterally decided” the questions instead of posing them to an arbitrator.  On appeal, the supreme court found “such a result simply is unreasonable” and “absurd.”  Therefore, it reversed with instruction for the trial court to issue an order compelling arbitration.

Just two days later, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia enforced the arbitration agreement in a contract of adhesion, again reversing the decision of a trial court. In Hampden Coal, LLC v. Varney, 2018 WL 944159 (W. Va. Feb. 16, 2018), an employee sued his employer and the employer moved to compel arbitration.  In response, the employee argued the arbitration clause was unenforceable.  On appeal, the supreme court clarified that it applies “the same legal standards to our review of all arbitration agreements,” and not a special standard if they involve employees or consumers.  It then found that the mutual agreement to arbitrate was sufficient consideration for the arbitration clause and that the arbitration clause was not unconscionable.

In a fitting ending to a post about high courts,  our nation’s highest court has agreed to decide a new arbitration case.  The case, New Prime Inc. v . Oliveiracomes from the 1st Circuit and raises two questions: whether a court or arbitrator should decide if an exemption to the FAA applies; and whether the FAA’s exemption (in Section 1) includes independent contractors.

The high courts of two states have allowed non-signatories to compel arbitration in recent weeks.  The cases show courts are addressing non-signatory issues using different standards and raise important drafting issues for joint ventures and business affiliates.

In Locklear Automotive Group, Inc. v. Hubbard, 2017 WL 4324852 (Alabama Sept. 29, 2017), the Supreme Court of Alabama found most of the claims against the non-signatory must be arbitrated.  [But before we get into the merits, I have to ask: what the heck is going on in Alabama?  Is some plaintiffs’ lawyer trolling for cases against dealerships? This is the third arbitration case   involving claims against dealerships coming out of that state’s high court in the last two months!]  Seven plaintiffs brought separate actions alleging that personal financial information they provided the dealership was not safeguarded.  All seven plaintiffs were the victims of identity theft.  They sued the dealership’s LLC, as well as the corporate entity which is the sole member of that LLC (the non-signatory).

Each plaintiff had at some point signed an arbitration agreement with the dealership, but not with the non-signatory.  The court separated plaintiffs into three groups.  The first group, made up of five plaintiffs, established that defendants had waived any argument to enforce the delegation clause at the trial court.  However, the non-signatory was able to compel arbitration with this group using an estoppel theory because: a) the language of the arbitration agreement was not limited to disputes between the signing parties; and b) the claims against the non-signatory were intertwined with the claims against the dealership.  The second group involved a single plaintiff, against whom the non-signatory had preserved its delegation argument.  Therefore the court enforced the delegation clause, sending the issue of arbitrability to an arbitrator.  Finally, in the third group, the court refused to compel arbitration of a plaintiff’s claims because the signed arbitration agreement related to a previous purchase, not the credit application that resulted in identity theft.

West Virginia reached a similar result, albeit through a different analysis, in Bluestem Brands, Inc. v. Shade, 2017 WL 4507090 (W. Va. October 6, 2017).  In that case, Bluestem (aka Fingerhut) had teamed up with banks to offer credit to its customers for Fingerhut purchases.  The credit agreements between the banks and consumers called for arbitration of any disputes.  In response to a credit collection case, Ms. Shade (such a great name for a plaintiff alleging bad deeds) claimed that Bluestem violated West Virginia law with its credit program.  Ms. Shade did not assert claims against the banks.  When Bluestem moved to compel arbitration under the “alternative estoppel” theory, the court held that it could compel arbitration if “the signatory’s claims make reference to, presume the existence of, or otherwise rely on the written agreement.”  (Note that W. Va. did not require the language of the arbitration agreement to encompass more than the signing parties, like Alabama above.)  The court found that Ms. Shade’s claims all were “predicated upon the existence of the credit” agreement, so it was appropriate to compel arbitration of the claims.

So, we have two high courts applying different standards for estoppel.  And we have the Bluestem case reaching the oppose result of a recent federal court in a very similar factual circumstance (the Sunoco case, involving jointly marketed credit cards).  This leaves less than clear guidance for lawyers who are trying to craft arbitration agreements that can stick, no matter the type of case, or who the plaintiff is that is attacking the product.

While the Supreme Court has put off hearing a more contentious arbitration case until the fall (presumably in hopes that it will have nine justices by then), tomorrow it will hear the nursing home arbitration case from Kentucky.  I look forward to listening to the questions and trying to figure out why the Justices granted a review on the merits…  Instead of repeating my analysis of the Kentucky case, here are some recent state court arbitration cases of interest (in addition to the three I posted about a few weeks ago).

West Virginia.  Remember when West Virginia was the thorn in the FAA’s side?  When it was the leader of the pack of anti-arbitration states?  Well, not in West Virginia CVS Pharmacy v. McDowell Pharmacy, Inc., 2017 WL 562826 (W. Va. Feb. 9, 2017).   The lower court had refused to compel arbitration of disputes between retail pharmacies and a pharmacy benefit management company.  Applying West Virginia law, the lower court found there was no arbitration agreement, because the parties did not validly incorporate the manual that contained the arbitration provision.   The West Virginia Supreme Court, however, applied Arizona law, as provided in the contract, and that made all the difference.  It found the arbitration agreements were adequately incorporated, and that their reference to AAA rules was sufficient to delegate questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator.  No cert likely here.

Missouri.  The Supreme Court of Missouri took a safe bet in siding (partially) against the arbitrator in State ex rel Greitens, 2017 WL 587296 (Mo. Feb. 14, 2017), since the Supreme Court has denied cert petitions in many cases stemming from the master settlement agreement between states and tobacco companies.  (E.g., this most recent one.)  In this case, the state’s highest court found the arbitration panel exceeded its power when it deprived Missouri of its share of $50 Million in tobacco settlement payments for 2003.  The case is too complicated to explain in this post, but know that this is one of those rare examples of a court modifying an arbitration award, as opposed to just confirming or vacating it.  No cert likely here either.

Iowa.  I never get to write about Iowa (which my daughter called “why-owa” after a long road trip through farm country), but its supreme court issued a decision in late 2016 about nursing home arbitration that merits mention here.  In Roth v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, 886 N.W.2d 601 (Iowa 2016), Iowa’s highest court answered a certified question from the federal district court.  In short, it found that Iowa’s statutes do not require judicial resolution of loss of consortium cases, and in this case the children of the decedent were not bound by the decedent’s arbitration clause because the “claims belong to the adult children and they never personally agreed to arbitrate.”  (Hard to make a bet on certiorari in this case, since it is headed back to federal trial court…)

Alabama.  In Hanover Ins. Co. v. Kiva Lodge Condominium Owners’ Assoc., 2016 WL 5135201 (Ala. Oct. 21, 2016), the Supreme Court of Alabama found that when the parties adopted the following addendum to their contract, the first party who filed an action was able to dictate the forum: “Notwithstanding anything in this Addendum to the contrary, either party may pursue any claim or dispute in a court of law, or through mediation and arbitration.”  That amended language was added to the parties’ A201 General Conditions, right after language indicating that “any claim arising out of or related to the Contract… may at the election of either party…be subject to arbitration.”  After the condo association brought their claims in court and requested a referral to arbitration, the defendants argued that the case should stay in court.  The trial court sent the claims to arbitration and the supreme court affirmed that result, finding “the addendum provides that once a party elects arbitration as a method for resolution of a dispute…the other party cannot neutralize that choice by insisting on litigation in court…In short, Kiva Lodge has proven the existence of a binding mandatory arbitration agreement between the parties.”  This will not end up at the Supreme Court, but it’s an important drafting lesson for all of us.

Lest anyone think that the preemption doctrine in arbitration has gone dormant, today’s cases should set the record straight.  Courts have recently found the FAA preempted state rules in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Alabama.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that one of its rules of civil procedure was preempted by the FAA in Taylor v Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., __ A.3d ___, 2016 WL 5630669 (Penn. Sept. 28, 2016).  The case involved claims regarding whether a nursing home properly cared for a patient.  The patient had signed an arbitration agreement, and under Pennsylvania law, that meant the “survival claim” on her behalf had to be arbitrated, but her heirs’ wrongful death claims were not subject to arbitration.  However, a rule of state civil procedure required that survival actions be consolidated with wrongful death actions for trial. Relying on that rule, the trial court and intermediate appellate court refused to enforce the arbitration agreement.  After clarifying its feelings about the current state of FAA case law (the court comments that the FAA has implicitly altered the Constitution and created a “preemption juggernaut” with Concepcion), the court acknowledged that it is “bound by the Supreme Court’s directive to favor enforcement over efficiency.”  Therefore, the survival action can proceed in arbitration.

Similarly, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed two lower courts that had refused to compel arbitration of claims in Parsons v. John Wieland Homes & Neighborhoods of the Carolinas, Inc., __ S.E.2d __, 2016 WL 441112 (S.C. Aug. 17, 2016).  Those courts had relied on the “outrageous tort exception” in South Carolina common law, which allowed “parties whose claims arose out of an opponent’s ‘outrageous’ tortious conduct to avoid arbitration.”   Though a majority of the court did not agree to totally overrule the doctrine, it did decide that it was preempted using the analysis of DirecTV.

The Alabama Supreme Court found one of its insurance regulations preempted by the FAA in African Methodist Episcopal Church v. Smith, __ So. 3d __, 2016 WL 4417268 (Ala. Aug. 19, 2016).  In that case, plaintiffs argued that the arbitration agreement in their group life insurance policy was unenforceable because the company had not included the disclosures required by the Alabama Department of Insurance.  The court found “[a]ny state requirement that an arbitration provision in an insurance contract be specially disclosed . . . is unenforceable; federal law prohibits arbitration provisions from being singled out for such special treatment.”

If you stuck with me this far, here are two bonus cases for you.  Although the FAA is usually the winner in a preemption war, there are times another federal statute overrides the FAA.  For example, the Supreme Court of Arizona held that the Medicare Act preempts the FAA.  United Behavioral Health v. Maricopa Integrated Heath Sys., 2016 WL 4474155 (Ariz. Aug. 25, 2016) (holding that the “administrative appeals process provided under the Medicare Act preempts arbitration of Medicare-related coverage disputes between private healthcare administrators and providers”).  However, the Eleventh Circuit found that the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) did not preempt the FAA.  Bodine v. Cook’s Pest Control, Inc., 2016 WL 4056031 (11th Cir. July 29, 2016).  Instead, the court found the two statutes could be harmonized, by modifying the aspects of an arbitration agreement that offended USERRA.

The Supreme Court of Arkansas has issued three opinions within the span of four weeks, all on the topic of whether defendants can compel arbitration. Each of the opinions came with a vigorous dissent.  The cases offer an interesting look at a state high court that appears to be struggling to deal with FAA case law from SCOTUS; on one hand the court cites recent federal arbitration jurisprudence, but on the other it displays real skepticism about arbitration (at least of consumer disputes) and uses some creativity in its state contract law.

Two of the opinions relate to whether nursing homes can compel arbitration of claims brought by former residents or their estates. In each of those cases, the Supreme Court of Arkansas allowed the nursing home to compel arbitration.  First, in Courtyard Gardens Health & Rehabilitation v. Arnold, 2016 Ark. 62 (Feb. 18, 2016), the court held that the agreement’s selection of the National Arbitration Forum (NAF, which no longer administers consumer arbitration) did not make the arbitration agreement impossible to perform, nor was the choice of NAF integral to the agreement.  Three justices dissented.  [The 11th Circuit just came out the other way on this issue, finding NAF was integral to an arbitration agreement and therefore refusing to compel arbitration in Flagg v. First Premier Bank, 2016 WL 703063 (11th Cir. Feb. 23, 2016).]

Then in GGNSC Holdings v. Lamb, 2016 Ark. 101 (March 10, 2016), the majority compelled arbitration of two nursing home plaintiffs’ claims.  Again, the court held that the unavailability of the NAF did not make the arbitration agreement impossible to perform.  It also held that the arbitration agreement was not unconscionable.  Two justices “strongly” dissented:

The majority’s opinion in this case goes far beyond resolving any doubts in favor of arbitration. It rubber-stamps the arbitration agreements before it based simply on our policy favoring arbitration.  This begs the question: Going forward, could there ever be an arbitration agreement the majority determines to be invalid or unenforceable?  If today’s decision is any indication, the answer to that question is no.

In a third case, the Supreme Court of Arkansas refused to compel arbitration of a class action alleging breach of contract and deceptive trade practices against a bank. Bank of the Ozarks, Inc. v. Walker, 2016 Ark. 116 (March 17, 2016).  The court found the arbitration agreement lacked mutuality and therefore was unenforceable.  (“Mutual obligation” is the fifth “essential element” of a contract in Arkansas.)  In one of the two provisions causing the lack of mutuality, the arbitration agreement obligated the customer to pay any attorneys’ fees the bank incurred “in good faith” in a dispute.  “In imposing all of the costs of arbitration on appellees, the parties in this case are treated differently, and ‘this disparate treatment results in a lack of mutuality.'”  The majority stated that it was cognizant of the severability doctrine and of Concepcion and was not violating either. [The court also seemed to hold that the one-sided fee provision precluded the customers from “effectively vindicating” their rights, citing to Green Tree.  The court conveniently ignored the subsequent language in Italian Colors, limiting that doctrine, and the fact that the doctrine only applies to federal statutory rights…]

The lone dissenter in Bank of the Ozarks sided with FAA preemption.  Citing DIRECTV, the dissenting justice pointed out occasions where the Supreme Court of Arkansas has recognized that “a contract does not lack mutuality merely because every obligation of one party is not met by an equivalent counter obligation of the other party.  With the decision in this case, the majority stretches the concept of mutuality of obligation so as to undermine our basic principles of contract law.”

—————————-

By the way, Arkansas is not the only court compelling arbitration of nursing home disputes. Alabama recently found that a resident’s daughter had apparent authority to bind her mother to the arbitration agreement. Kindred Nursing Centers East, LLC v. Jones, 2016 WL 762450 (Ala. Feb. 26, 2016). (Two justices dissented.)  The Fifth Circuit also reversed a district court’s refusal to compel arbitration of residents’ claims against nursing homes in Gross v. GGNSC Southaven, LLC, 2016 WL 1019200 (5th Cir. March 14, 2016).  The district court had held there was insufficient evidence that the individual signing the arbitration agreement had been authorized by the resident.  The Fifth Circuit found Mississippi law on authority was not so restrictive and remanded for further fact finding.

March comes in like a lion, right?  Well, that’s not true with respect to the weather here in Minneapolis.  But it may be true with respect to arbitration decisions from around the country.  This post focuses on two recent decisions from state high courts that refuse to compel arbitration.

In Global Client Solutions, LLC v. Ossello, 2016 WL 825140 (Mont. Mar. 2, 2016), a majority of Montana’s Supreme Court refused to enforce the arbitration clause between a consumer and a financial institution (that set up a bank account for the consumer’s efforts with a debt relief company).  The arbitration clause provided for AAA arbitration of all claims arising out of the agreement, even claims relating to the validity of the agreement, but the bank had the right to bring collections actions in court. The trial court found the arbitration clause was unconscionable and refused to compel arbitration.

On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court first found there was no enforceable delegation clause in the parties’ arbitration clause, because the language was “ambiguous and confusing” instead of clear and unmistakable, largely due to what appears to be a typo in the clause. (The clause said the parties would arbitrate “the breach, termination, enforcement, interpretation or validity [of the entire agreement], including the termination of the scope or applicability of this Agreement to arbitrate”.  The bank argued “termination” was supposed to be “determination.”)  The court also refused to find that incorporation of the AAA rules constituted an enforceable delegation clause, because it did not specify which AAA rules applied and this was not a contract between two sophisticated commercial parties.

After confirming it could address the validity of the arbitration clause, the court found the clause unconscionable under Montana law because the bank had the right to bring collection matters to court, while the consumer had no similar right. The court reasoned that its holding was not preempted under the Concepcion rule, because other post-Concepcion courts have relied on lack of mutuality to invalidate an arbitration clause.

A concurring justice wrote “The elephant in the room is not state hostility toward arbitration…If there is any hostility, it is toward those who hide behind the FAA…to escape any material consequence of running fraudulent confidence schemes.” [But of course that assumes that a AAA arbitrator would not find wrongdoing when confronted with a “fraudulent confidence scheme”… ] Two justices dissented, asserting that the incorporation of AAA rules was a valid delegation clause, such that the arbitration clause’s validity should have been decided by a AAA arbitrator.

The second case comes from Alabama and is a cautionary tale for companies trying to add arbitration agreements to existing contracts with many consumers.  In Moore v. Franklin, 2016 WL 761698 (Ala. Feb. 26, 2016), the Supreme Court of Alabama found the parties did not form a valid arbitration agreement by virtue of the bank posting a notice to the customer’s online banking profile.  Citing cases from five federal courts, Alabama concluded that in order to form part of the parties’ agreement, there must be proof that the recipient accessed the web page containing the arbitration provision.

What lessons can we give drafters from these two cases?  Well, check for typos.  And then double and triple-check.  Then, and only then, considering increasing the likelihood the arbitration clause will be found enforceable by making any carve-outs mutual.  If the company can bring collection claims in court, then why not let the consumer bring modest claims in small claims court?  Finally, once you drafted the clause, find a way of making sure those customers see it (and hopefully even click a button confirming that they agreed to it).

Some arbitration topics just never die.  This post strings together new cases on three of those topics: 1) whether arbitration agreements that call for the now-defunct National Arbitration Forum (NAF) are enforceable; 2) formation fights in nursing home agreements; and 3) the continuing fight between the NLRB and the courts over class action waivers in employment agreements .

In a 3-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania refused to enforce an arbitration agreement that called for administration by the NAF.  Wert v. Manorcare of Carlisle PA, 2015 WL 6499141 (Pa. October 27, 2015).  In the context of a wrongful death claim against a nursing home, the parties disputed the enforceability of an arbitration agreement in the admission paperwork.  Pennsylvania’s highest court adopted a 2010 decision from its intermediate appellate court finding that the incorporation of the National Arbitration Forum Code was an essential term, such that if the NAF was unavailable, the entire arbitration agreement was unenforceable. The court found the subjective intent of the Appellee (who admitted she did not read the agreement) was irrelevant.  Relying on its analysis of the NAF rules, the court found “the provision integral and non-severable.”  For good measure, the court also noted that its result was not preempted by federal law because it was “based on settled Pennsylvania contract law principles that stand independent of arbitration.”  State courts, as well as federal courts, are now split on how to handle arbitration clauses incorporating NAF rules.

In another nursing home case, the Alabama Supreme Court found an arbitration agreement was not validly formed because the person who signed it did not have proper authority.  Diversicare Leasing Corp v. Hubbard, 2015 WL 5725116 (Ala. Sept. 30, 2015), involved a mother’s claim about the wrongful death of her son in a long-term care facility. When the adult son, whose mental capacity had not progressed beyond that of a toddler, was admitted, his mother signed the admission agreement as the “responsible party” and “resident’s representative.”  After she brought suit, the nursing home moved to compel arbitration.  However, the Alabama trial and appellate courts found that no valid arbitration agreement had been formed.  Critically, the son had never been mentally competent to authorize his mother to act on his behalf, and she had never been given his power of attorney, or health care decision-making rights, or been appointed his legal guardian after his 18th birthday.  Therefore, the mother’s signature did not bind the son.  The Alabama decision is in line with other state court decisions that have strictly interpreted the legal authority of relatives who sign arbitration agreements in nursing home contracts.

Finally, the third case taught me a new legal doctrine: nonacquiescence.  And who is not acquiescing to federal authority?  Well, the NLRB, at least according to the 5th Circuit.  In its D.R. Horton decision in 2013, the Fifth Circuit had rejected the NLRB’s analysis that federal labor laws override the FAA and preclude class action waivers.  Despite D.R. Horton, the NLRB applied its same analysis in Murphy Oil, just ten months later.  On review, the Fifth Circuit forcefully reaffirmed its earlier holding.  Murphy Oil USA v. NLRB, 2015 WL 6457613 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2015).  However, the court was not willing to hold the NLRB in contempt or otherwise penalize the Board. Because the Board only has to acquiesce to circuit court rulings when a case will be reviewed by that same circuit, and the Murphy Oil case could have been reviewed in multiple circuits, the court noted “[w]e do not celebrate the Board’s failure to follow our D.R. Horton reasoning, but neither do we condemn its nonacquiescence.”

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).

One way to challenge the very existence of an agreement to arbitrate is to say that the parties’ contract said nothing about arbitration and did not validly incorporate any other document calling for arbitration.  Oklahoma and Alabama have recently come out at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what kind of notice must be given a consumer to incorporate an arbitration agreement from a secondary document.

In Walker v. Builddirect.com Technologies, Inc., 2015 WL 3429364 (10th Cir. 2015), the federal appellate court refused to compel arbitration of a dispute, because under state law the arbitration provision was not incorporated by reference into the contract signed by the parties.   That contract  said it was subject to the seller’s “terms of sale,” but did not list those terms or direct the customer to the website where those terms could be found. The Tenth Circuit had certified the question of whether the website terms were incorporated by reference to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which found they were not.  For future drafters, the Oklahoma decision notes:

If BuildDirect intended to make the online “Terms of Sale” part of the parties’ agreement, BuildDirect could easily have accomplished that purpose by drafting the Contract employing words of express incorporation or clearly referencing, identifying and directing the Walkers to the document to be incorporated.

Reaching the opposite result, the Supreme Court of Alabama enforced arbitration agreements that were contained in insurance forms that the plaintiffs may never have received. American Bankers Ins. Co. of Fl. v. Tellis, __ So.3d __, 2015 WL 3935260 (Ala. 2015).  The insurance policyholders had received their policies, which allegedly included two supplemental forms containing the arbitration agreement.  The policyholders swore they never received those forms, and, although one form has a signature line, the insurer could not produce any signed versions of the form.  However, because those forms were listed on the declarations page (by numerical code, not a descriptive title), the court found the policyholders had a duty to investigate the content of the forms.  In support of compelling arbitration it held:

In sum, although the policyholders did not execute stand-alone arbitration agreements or necessarily even read or receive the insurance policies containing the arbitration provisions, they have nevertheless manifested their assent to those policies, and, necessarily, the arbitration provisions in them, by accepting and acting upon the policies, inasmuch as they all affirmatively renewed their policies and paid their premiums…

In an easier case, the high court in Maryland allowed an arbitration agreement in one document to require the parties to arbitrate disputes over a second document.  Ford v. Antwerpen Motorcars, Ltd., __ A.3d__, 2015 WL 3937607 (Md. 2015).  In that case, all the documents were signed “on the same day during the course of the purchase and financing of an automobile.”  Although only the “Buyer’s Order” contained an arbitration agreement (the financing agreement did not), the court found the buyers’ claims over the financing must be decided in arbitration because the two documents must be construed together as the entire agreement between the parties.

What do these divergent results mean for drafters of arbitration agreements?  As usual, err on the side of caution.  If you comply with Oklahoma’s requirements of notice, which are not that onerous, you will most certainly be well-positioned in other states.

p.s.  This is my 200th blog post at Arbitration Nation!  Hold off on the streamers and balloons, because my fourth blog-iversary is next month anyhow.