As we close out 2018, it is a good time to reflect on the year in arbitration law.  Overall, I would characterize the year as another in which everyone was mildly obsessed with class actions, the U.S. Supreme Court again showed its willingness to enforce arbitration agreements of all kinds, and lower courts and groups of citizens attempted to resist the high court’s blind faith in arbitration with some success.  Here are my thoughts on the biggest stories of the year:

  • Decision With Biggest Impact: SCOTUS’s ruling in Epic Systems Groups of employees argued that the National Labor Relations Act gave them the right to join class actions and no arbitration agreement could overcome that statutory right.  But the Court emphatically rejected that argument, holding that employees are bound to the agreements they sign and nothing in the NLRA contradicts that result.  The outcome of this case was not unexpected, but the fallout was dramatic.  Many class actions dried up almost immediately, while others took a few months.  Yet other employees decided to give mass individual arbitration a go, filing hundreds of arbitration demands against the same employer simultaneously.
  • Circuit Split Most Likely To Go To SCOTUS: The split over who — judges or arbitrators — should decide whether the parties’ arbitration agreement allows class arbitration.   Seven federal circuits have looked at this issue.  Four have concluded that the issue of class arbitration is a big enough deal that it is presumptively for courts to decide, even when the parties have incorporated arbitration rules that authorize an arbitrator to decide jurisdictional questions.  Three circuits disagree.  Given the Supreme Court’s attraction to everything class arbitration, this seems likely to pique the Justices’ interest.  (Indeed, a cert petition has been filed in the 11th Circuit case, which is on the minority side of this circuit split, and the Justices have asked the winning party to respond.)
  • Best Evidence That Arbitration Law Is Still In Its Infancy: The conflicting cases over whether Uber’s arbitration agreement is enforceable.  Nothing says “This is a developing area of law” like having the First Circuit refuse to enforce the same arbitration agreement that the Second Circuit had just agreed to enforce.  Even better — the difference turned on the color of the hyperlink.  [Runner up in this category are the conflicting cases over whether the arbitration agreements printed on the outside of roofing shingle packages are enforceable.]
  • Most Successful Political Attack on Arbitration: The #MeToo movement successfully brought public attention to  concerns that having arbitration agreements in employment contracts may exacerbate a discriminatory workplace.  As a result, legislation declaring arbitration agreements invalid in cases of sexual assault or harassment was introduced at the federal level and many states.  To date, I am aware of it passing in only New York and Washington.  But, those state statutes are likely preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  More effective may be the public pronouncements by many major corporations that they will not enforce arbitration agreements in cases of sexual assault or harassment.
  • New Face of the Resistance: Kentucky.  First place had to go to Kentucky, after this decision, in which it just ignored the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court had schooled it on arbitration law last year.  But there are many runners-up in this category, frequently consisting of courts who are using the flexibility inherent in state contract law to find ways around arbitration.  For example, the courts who have recently decided that if the parties either did not choose an entity to administer the arbitration, or chose one that is no longer available, that voids the entire arbitration agreement. (See postscript on this entry.)  Or the courts who found that, despite the federal presumption in favor of arbitrability, the parties’ disagreement was outside the scope of their arbitration agreement.
  • Most Outrageous Motion To Compel: There are moments you just want to say “What were you thinking??” to counsel for the defense.  This year, this case stood out to me for outrageous conduct, as the plaintiffs did not originally have an arbitration agreement but apparently were duped into signing one a year into the class action litigation.  But, this case was a close second (where the defense argued that blind plaintiffs should be bound by the arbitration agreement, despite no evidence they were made aware of its existence).

Turning our sights forward, what can we expect in 2019?  Well, SCOTUS owes us three arbitration decisions (Henry Schein, Lamps Plus, and New Prime).  None of those are likely to have broad impact on arbitration law, as they each deal with fairly narrow issues.  So, big stories will likely come from elsewhere.  Maybe the new Democratic majority in the House will have more interest (and success) in passing federal arbitration legislation?   Maybe mass individual arbitration filings will change the cost-benefit-analysis of class action waivers for corporations?  I look forward to watching it unfold with all of you!  Happy New Year.

You know what rarely rises to the top of my “to do” list?  Reading scholarly articles and studies about arbitration.  Blech.  But, since I haven’t seen any good court decisions lately, it is time to visit the neglected pile of articles.  Turns out, I should have read some of them right away.  Below are summaries of five new-ish articles that have crossed my desk.  A few offer peeks into arbitration data that is generally not available and some conclusions to chew on over this Thanksgiving holiday.

First is “Arbitration Nation,” an empirical study of 40,775 consumer, employment and tort cases filed with four different arbitration providers between 2010 – 2016 (AAA, JAMS, ADR Services and Kaiser).*   The data came from two sources: public data that the State of California requires arbitration providers to file, as well as a cache of data  gathered by the New York Times.  After reviewing the data, the authors conclude: 1) arbitration is faster that court litigation and generally more affordable for plaintiffs; 2) there was no surge in arbitration filings after the Concepcion decision, but there is evidence of at least a few mass-individual filings (same law firm filing 200 – 1300 individual arbitrations against the same defendant in the same time period); 3) plaintiffs win at a lower rate in arbitration than in court, and pro se plaintiffs “struggle mightily” in arbitration; and 4) the concerns about “repeat-player bias” are “well-founded” — but those repeat players are both defendants who appear often, as well as plaintiffs-side law firms who appear often.  For example, within the JAMS set of data, the authors report that a consumer’s probability of winning increased 79.9% if it was represented by a “super repeat-player” law firm (as compared to appearing pro se), and an employee’s probability of winning increased 55.1% if he was represented by a “high-level” repeat player firm.  (See pp. 42-43.)  Read this article if you: want to compare JAMS and AAA (on cost and speed); want to see data on how Concepcion affected arbitration filings; or want to see statistical evidence of “repeat player” bias.

Second, “Inside the Black Box” reflects findings from surveys of construction arbitrators, advocates, and industry representatives.  Although some of the survey findings just confirmed what most people would expect (like party-appointed arbitrators are not always neutral), there are some unexpected nuggets.  For example, I found it interesting that 68.5% of construction arbitrators report allowing depositions in “regular” sized cases, and 88.9% of arbitrators report allowing them in large, complex cases.  And 75% of arbitrators allow prehearing subpoenas.  Furthermore “advocates prefer more discovery than arbitrators are allowing in … cases in which claims are below $1 million.”  (p. 59)  Furthermore, the authors say “summary judgment motions in construction arbitrations perhaps have been over-criticized.  If a healthy majority of 63.7% of arbitrators found they were useful half the time or more..it is hard to argue their use should be constrained.” (p. 65)  I also like this one: 44.6% of the arbitrators who responded said that evidentiary objections have no impact on their view of the evidence or their deliberations.  So, stop shouting “Objection: hearsay” in arbitration! Read this article if you: are a construction litigator and want to understand the norms in this industry’s arbitration practice.

Third, “Arbitration in the Americas” reports findings from surveys of arbitration “practitioners” across the Americas.  Amusingly, of the 212 U.S. respondents, 60.45% describe legislators as “having a Low or Very Low understanding of arbitration.”  In keeping with the “Arbitration Nation” study above, “U.S. respondents reported that arbitration in the United States is faster than litigation, with 44.32% describing it as Slightly Faster, and a further 43.24% describing it as Much Faster.” (p. 60)  More surprisingly, “U.S. respondents overwhelmingly described arbitration as on average cheaper than litigation, with 49.19% describing it as Slightly Cheaper and a further 22.70% describing it as Much Cheaper.” (61).  Read this article if you want to compare perceptions of how well arbitration works and is supported in this country with perceptions in other countries.

Fourth, “The Black Hole of Mandatory Arbitration” argues that between 315,000 and 722,000 potential employment arbitrations are “missing in action”.   As the abstract states: “The great bulk of employment disputes that are subject to [mandatory arbitration agreements] simply evaporate before they are ever filed. They are “MIA,” or “missing in arbitration.” That conclusion emerges from a comparison of the tiny number of employment claims that are filed in arbitration with an estimated number of claims one would expect to see given the number of employees who are covered by MAAs and the volume of employment litigation by those who are free to litigate.”  Read this article if you like public policy and are concerned about current SCOTUS jurisprudence.

Fifth, “Running It Twice“, proposes new types of baseball arbitration, in which separate arbitrators (or panels) decide the same dispute to ensure no rogue result.  Read this article if you like shiny new things and sports analogies.

*You didn’t read that wrong; the article’s name is the same as this blog.  I gave them permission.

Happy Thanksgiving all!