I called it.  SCOTUS issued its unanimous opinion today in Henry Schein v. Archer & White, vacating and remanding the Fifth Circuit decision and making clear that there is no “wholly groundless” exception to the Federal Arbitration Act’s enforcement of delegation clauses.

As you may recall, a circuit split had developed over the “wholly groundless” exception.  Some circuits, including the Fifth, concluded that even when parties have delegated questions of arbitrability (questions like: is the arbitration agreement valid? and does it cover the current dispute?) to an arbitrator, courts have the right to do an initial smell test.  If the court finds the defendant’s argument for arbitrability is “wholly groundless” (and stinks), then it can refuse to send it to arbitrator.  Other circuits, however, found room for no such exception in SCOTUS’s decisions.

After quickly shooting down the four primary arguments proffered in favor of the exception, the Court concluded:

In sum, we reject the “wholly groundless” exception. The exception is inconsistent with the statutory text and with our precedent. It confuses the question of who decides arbitrability with the separate question of who prevails on arbitrability. When the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, the courts must respect the parties’ decision as embodied in the contract.

Given that this outcome was expected, is there anything interesting about this decision?   On first glance, there is at least one thing.  The Court’s emphasis in this decision is on the parties’ agreement: it reasons that “a court may not decide an arbitrability question that the parties have delegated to an arbitrator.”  That could be read as a signal that the Court also favors arbitrators determining the availability of class arbitration, in the circuit split on whether a delegation clause authorizes an arbitrator to decide that issue.

However, SCOTUS inserted a final paragraph that leaves it some wiggle room on that question.  It notes that “We express no view about whether the contract at issue in this case in fact delegated the arbitrability question to an arbitrator. The Court of Appeals did not decide that issue.”  In other words, if the Court is going to keep the decision regarding class arbitrability in courts, it will likely be because it finds that an incorporation of arbitral rules is not sufficient to “clearly and unmistakably” delegate arbitrability to an arbitrator.

 

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.

Usually the plaintiffs in a class action want to stay out of arbitration, but in the recent case of JPAY v. Kobel, 2018 WL 4472207 (11th Cir. Sept. 19, 2018), it was the class representatives who were fighting for arbitration.  In particular, they wanted the arbitrator to decide whether they could have a class action.  And they won.

In a case that reads as if it is charting significant new ground, even though the court reached almost the same conclusion just a few weeks ago, the Eleventh Circuit clarified a few holdings.  First, the availability of class arbitration is a “gateway issue” that is presumptively for courts to decide.  [To be fair, in the earlier decision, it had assumed that result without actually reaching that holding.]  Second, the availability of class arbitration can be delegated to arbitrators just as easily as other gateway questions.  In other words, the 11th Circuit reaffirmed its opposition to the rule adopted by three other circuits: that the question of class arbitrability takes special delegation language, and incorporating JAMS or AAA rules is not enough.

In this case, the court found that the parties had delegated the question of whether the action could proceed on a class basis in arbitration in two independent ways.  First, they had agreed to arbitrate under AAA rules (the agreement mentions both consumer and commercial rules).  Because the AAA rules authorize arbitrators to determine their own jurisdiction, the 11th Circuit found this was sufficient to authorize the arbitrator to decide whether a class action was available under the language of the parties’ arbitration agreement.  It disagreed that the parties needed to have adopted or referenced the AAA Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitrations.

Second, the parties had included this language in the arbitration clause: “the ability to arbitrate the dispute, claim or controversy shall likewise be determined in the arbitration.”  The court found that was sufficient, even without the incorporation of AAA rules, to take the class arbitrability decision out of the court’s ambit.

The court also took on some of the public policy arguments made in favor of keeping class arbitrability in the courts.  It said “[t]he arbitrator’s decision whether a class is available will be more efficient and more confidential than a court’s would be.  The determination of class availability has the same stakes and involves the same parties whether it is decided in a court or in arbitration.”  And while the arbitrator’s decision is “somewhat less reviewable than a court’s,….it will be no less reviewable than any other decision made in arbitration, and the law generally favors arbitration of many high-stakes questions.”  This is one of the most respectful, positive statements I have seen about arbitration in a court decision in a long time.  Curious though that the court did not address the frequent rebuttal to these arguments: that there could be financial incentive for an arbitrator or administrator to find a class can proceed.

The decision was not unanimous.  The lone dissenter from the panel wrote that “without a specific reference to class arbitration the court should presume that the parties did not intend to delegate to an arbitrator an issue of such great consequence.”

I am taking bets on how quickly SCOTUS grants cert to decide this circuit split.

Today’s post concerns a perennially hot topic: class actions.  In particular, do courts decide whether an arbitration agreement allows for class actions?  Or do arbitrators?  (Because, it turns out, there are actually some corporations who have not inserted class action waivers in their consumer contracts.)  To date, four circuit courts have held that class arbitrability is an issue that is presumably for courts (not arbitrators) to decide, even if the parties incorporate rules that generally delegate issues of arbitrability to an arbitrator (3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th).  In recent weeks, the Tenth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit disagreed.  Because the Second Circuit had also previously disagreed, there is now a 4-3 split among the circuits over whether the incorporation of AAA (or similar) rules is sufficient to authorize an arbitrator to decide whether arbitration can proceed on a class-wide basis.

In Spirit Airlines v. Maizes, 2018 WL 3866335 (11th Cir. Aug. 15, 2018), members of Spirit Airlines’ “$9 Fare Club” started a class arbitration with the AAA.  Spirit then brought an action to federal court, seeking a declaration that the arbitration clause did not authorize class arbitration.  (You may recall that the outcome of the Stolt-Nielsen and Sutter cases is that there can be no class arbitration unless the parties agreed to that process in their arbitration clause, but the language does not have to be explicit.)  The district court found that the arbitrator should determine the issue of whether a class action could proceed in arbitration.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found that no special rules apply to class arbitration.  It assumed that class arbitration is a gateway issue of arbitrability, such that the court has presumptive authority to decide it.  Here, the Spirit agreement called for the AAA rules, which the court found included the Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitration, and those supplementary rules empower an arbitrator to decide whether claimants may proceed as a class action.  The court found that incorporation of AAA rules was clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties intended the arbitrator to decide the availability of a class action in arbitration.  It relied on earlier precedent finding that AAA rules are sufficient to delegate jurisdictional issues to arbitrators, and disagreed that SCOTUS rulings provide for any different outcome in the case of class arbitration.

In Dish Network v. Ray, 2018 WL 3978537 (10th Cir. Aug. 21, 2018), a former employee of Dish Network started a class and collective arbitration with the AAA.  The appointed arbitrator issued a Clause Construction Award, finding that he had authority to decide the issue and that the arbitration agreement permitted a collective action.  The arbitrator’s award included ten pages of analysis interpreting the text of the arbitration agreement to shed light on whether they agreed to allow class/collective actions in arbitration.  The district court denied Dish’s motion to vacate the Clause Construction Award, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed that decision.

On appeal, the court assumed without deciding that the availability of class arbitration is a gateway dispute for court to decide.  Even so, it found that the parties’ selection of AAA rules to govern the arbitration was sufficient to clearly and unmistakably delegate the issue of class arbitration to the arbitrator.  It acknowledged that four circuits had “require[d] more specific language delegating the question of class wide arbitrability,” but noted that the Second Circuit had disagreed with that holding earlier this year.  Following the lead of the Second Circuit, the court relied on precedent from Colorado and the Tenth Circuit finding that incorporation of AAA rules is sufficient to delegate arbitrability to the arbitrator.  Having concluded that the arbitrator had authority to determine whether the parties’ arbitration agreement allowed for class/collective actions, the court had little trouble finding that the arbitrator’s Clause Construction Award could not be vacated.  The court found that the arbitrator “interpreted the parties’ contract, which is all we are allowed to consider” and did not manifestly disregard the law.

The fact that this circuit split is heating up is interesting in light of one of the arbitration cases that SCOTUS will hear on October 29.  That case, Lamps Plus, presents the question of how specific the language of an arbitration agreement must be in order to authorize class arbitration.

_______________________________

A class action postscript.

A putative class of plaintiffs sued Bluestem Brands in federal court in Minnesota for claims related to its credit programs.  In response to a motion to compel arbitration, the district court compelled arbitration of some claims, but denied others, finding they fell outside the scope of the credit agreement’s arbitration clause.  On appeal, the Eighth Circuit found all claims fell within the arbitration clause.  Parm v. Bluestem Brands, 2018 WL 3733424 (8th Cir. Aug. 7, 2018).  After finding the arbitration clause was “broad” (because it used the magic phrase “arise out of”), it found the factual allegations for all claims “touch[ed] matters covered by the arbitration agreement,” because all allegations related to the financing agreements.

And, in further fallout from Epic Systems, roughly 1600 employees of Kelly Services alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act in federal court.  Gaffers v. Kelly Services, 2018 WL 3863422 (6th Cir. Aug. 15, 2018).  Kelly Services compelled individual arbitration with the employees who had arbitration agreements (about half).  As those employees’ only defense was that the Federal Arbitration Act should take a backseat to the FLSA or NLRA, the employees lost on appeal and will have to arbitrate.

Almost a year ago, the Second Circuit praised the clean, readable design of Uber’s app.   Because the reference to Uber’s terms of service was not cluttered and hyperlinked to the actual terms, the Second Circuit held Uber could enforce its arbitration agreement and the class action waiver within it.  But, just last week, the First Circuit disagreed.  In Cullinane v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 2018 WL 3099388 (1st Cir. June 25, 2018), it refused to enforce an arbitration clause in Uber’s terms of service and allowed a putative class action to proceed.  The First Circuit found customers were not reasonably notified of Uber’s terms and conditions, because the hyperlink to those terms was not conspicuous.

The Cullinane opinion was applying Massachusetts law on contract formation.  Massachusetts has not specifically addressed online agreements (or smart phone apps), but in analogous contexts has held that forum selection clauses should be enforced if they are “reasonably communicated and accepted.”  In particular, there must be “reasonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent.”  The Meyer opinion was applying California law on contract formation.  But the test was identical, because both states had borrowed it from a Second Circuit decision about Netscape.  So, the state law at issue does not explain the different outcome.

The one thing that might explain the different outcome is that the two federal appellate courts appear to have analyzed slightly different versions of Uber’s app.  In Cullinane, the lead plaintiffs had signed up between Dec. 31, 2012 and January 10, 2014.  (The court reproduced the actual screen shots early in its opinion.)  In Meyer, the lead plaintiff had signed up in October, 2014, and Uber had altered the design of its sign-up screens.  (There, the screen shot is an addendum to its opinion.)  For example, the background was now white in late 2014, instead of black, and the “Terms of Service & Privacy Policy” were in teal, instead of white text.

And, those are some of the aspects of the design that the First Circuit pointed to as critical.  It noted that hyperlinked terms are usually in blue text and underlined, but that the Cullinane plaintiffs’ were faced with hyperlinked “Terms of Service” that were not blue or underlined.  Instead, they were in white text in a gray box, no different than other non-hyperlinked text like “scan your card” on the same screen.   In addition, the First Circuit found the text stating “by creating an Uber account you agree to the [Terms]” was insufficiently conspicuous for similar reasons.  For those reasons, the Cullinane opinion found “the Plaintiffs were not reasonably notified of the terms of the Agreement, they did not provide their unambiguous assent to those terms.”

This is another example of how unsettled some aspects of arbitration law are (and maybe consumer contracting in general).  In Meyer, the district court had denied Uber’s motion to compel arbitration, and the appellate court reversed, granting the motion to compel arbitration.  And in Cullinane, the district court had granted Uber’s motion to compel arbitration, and the appellate court reversed, denying the motion to compel arbitration.  Those four courts were applying the exact same legal standard of conspicuousness, and reached opposite conclusions in the span of less than a year.

The lesson here is two-fold.  First, there is no clear standard for when terms on a website (or on a receipt, or in a box) are sufficiently conspicuous, so judges are left to their own devices (pun intended) to answer that question.  Second, unless an on-line provider wants judges — who are likely untrained in the psychology of consumer design related to five inch screens (and may not even have any apps) — to keep on getting to whatever result they please, the only solution is to require a consumer to actually click “I agree” after viewing a screen of the terms and conditions.  Unless, of course, SCOTUS grants certiorari of this new “circuit split” and issues guidance…

 

Two different panels of the Second Circuit issued opinions about class arbitration on the same day last week.  One creates a circuit split over how specific parties must be to delegate the availability of class arbitration to arbitrators, and the second addresses when bankruptcy law can preempt the federal arbitration act.

In Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC v. Sappington, 2018 WL 1177230 (2d Cir. March 7, 2018), a putative class of former Wells Fargo employees brought suit for unpaid overtime (FLSA).  Wells Fargo moved to compel “bilateral” (individual) arbitration.  The district court denied the motion, finding that the arbitrator was authorized to decide whether class arbitration was available.   The Second Circuit affirmed.

As you may recall from this blog, at least four federal circuit courts have found that whether class arbitration is available is a gateway issue of arbitrability, meaning that it is presumptively for the courts to determine.  (The 8th, 6th, 4th, and 3d.)  And, while parties can delegate gateway issues to the arbitrator if they do so clearly and unmistakably, at least three of those circuits have held that a higher standard applies to the class arbitration issue.  (For example, the Eighth Circuit found that incorporating AAA rules was not sufficient to delegate class arbitrability, while it is sufficient to delegate other gateway issues.)

In the Wells Fargo matter, the Second Circuit “assume[d] without deciding” that the availability of class arbitration is a gateway question.  (Wimps.  Just decide.)  It then considered whether the delegation of that issue to an arbitrator was clear and unmistakable under Missouri law.  One set of plaintiffs had an agreement stating that “any controversy relating to your duty to arbitrate hereunder, or to the validity or enforceability of this arbitration clause, or to any defense to arbitration, shall also be arbitrated.”    The court found that was clear and unmistakable delegation of the class arbitration issue to an arbitrator.

More surprisingly, the court found that a second set of plaintiffs had also clearly and unmistakable delegated class arbitration to an arbitrator, even though their agreement only agreed to arbitrate “any dispute” and adopted either FINRA rules or alternatively 1993 Securities Arbitration Rules of the AAA.  In its analysis, the court noted that because some types of disputes were excluded from arbitration (unemployment), but class arbitration was not excluded, Missouri law would consider it included.  And the court found that more recent iterations of the AAA rules applied, which allow an arbitrator to determine whether a class can proceed.  This decision creates a circuit split on the issue of whether class arbitration is special enough to deserve its own rules for delegation.

As if creating a circuit split on class arbitrability wasn’t exciting enough, the Second Circuit also allowed another putative class action to go forward, despite an arbitration clause.  In In re Anderson, 2018 WL 1177227 (2d Cir. March 7, 2018), Mr. Anderson went through Chapter 7 bankruptcy and his debts were released.  One of those debts was to his credit card company.  However, Mr. Anderson alleged that the credit card company refused to update his credit reports after the bankruptcy.  So, he filed a putative class action.  The credit card moved to compel arbitration under the cardholder agreement, but the bankruptcy court found it was non-arbitrable because it “was a core bankruptcy proceeding that went to the heart of the ‘fresh start’ guaranteed to debtors.”  On appeal, the Second Circuit agreed.

This is my 290th post at ArbitrationNation and today I celebrate six years of blogging.  Woo hoo — that’s longer than most celebrity marriages!  In honor of the occasion, here are updates on six of the hottest issues in arbitration law so far this year.

  1. Agency regulation of arbitration agreements.  On the one hand, the CFPB issued a rule that will preclude financial institutions from using class action waivers in arbitration agreements.  To understand how “yuge” this is, remember that the CFPB’s initial study showed there are likely over 100 million arbitration agreements impacted by this rule.  (And there does not seem to be the necessary political willpower to stop it.)  On the other hand, agencies headed by Trump appointees have moved to roll back Obama-era consumer-friendly regulations of arbitration agreements in nursing homes and educational institutions.
  2. NLRB.  While the CFPB attacks class action waivers in the financial industry, the NLRB has been attacking those waivers in the employment context, taking the position that such waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act.  A circuit split developed, with the 6th, 7th, and 9th circuits on NLRB’s side, and the 2nd, 5th and 8th circuits siding with the employers.  The Supreme Court will hear arguments on October 2.
  3. Wholly Groundless.  When considering whether to enforce delegation clauses, some federal court have developed a carve-out for claims they think are nothing but hot air.  [Remember delegation clauses are those portions of arbitration agreements that authorize arbitrators to determine even arbitrability — whether the arbitration agreement is valid and encompasses the claims — issues usually decided by courts.]  That carve-out has been called the “wholly groundless” exception, and it is coming up with greater frequency.  Currently there is a circuit split: the 5th, 6th and federal circuits are in favor of spot-checking claims of arbitrability (e.g. Evans v. Building Materials Corp. of Am., 2017 WL 2407857 (Fed. Cir. June 5, 2017)), while the 10th and 11th Circuits believe SCOTUS’s precedent leaves no room for conducting a smell test (e.g. Jones v. Waffle House, Inc., 2017 WL 3381100 (11th Cir. Aug. 7, 2017)).
  4. Formation.  SCOTUS decided the Kindred case in May, confirming that state law on contract formation is also subject to preemption by the Federal Arbitration Act.  That was timely, given that plaintiffs appear to be placing their bets on challenging formation as the most effective way around an arbitration agreement.  They might be right.  See James v. Global Tellink Corp., 852 F.3d 262 (3d Cir. Mar. 29, 2017); Noble v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc., 2017 WL 838269 (3d Cir. March 3, 2017); King v. Bryant, 795 S.E.2d 340 (N.C. Jan. 27, 2017).
  5. Small Claims Court.  If a company starts a small claims court action to collect a debt, does that waive the company’s right to compel arbitration years later in response to a suit by the consumer?  This is a question multiple courts are facing, with differing results.  E.g., Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 156 A.3d 807 (Md. Mar. 24, 2017) (waiver); Hudson v. Citibank, 387 P.3d 42 (Alaska Dec. 16, 2016) (no waiver); Citibank, N.A. v. Perry, 797 S.E.2d 803 (W. Va. Nov. 10, 2016) (no waiver).  It is important because many consumer arbitration agreements exempt small claims from arbitrable claims, but may reconsider if that is considered a waiver of everything else.
  6. Statutory Preclusion.  The Federal Arbitration Act generally requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements.  But, if there is a contrary congressional command entitling the litigant to a court trial, it can override the FAA.  That issue has already come up multiple times this year, with the FAA generally winning its battles with other statutes.  E.g., McLeod v. General Mills, Inc., 854 F.3d 420 (8th Cir. Apr. 14, 2017).

Thanks to all of you for providing great feedback, leads on cases and topics, client referrals, and a warm community of fellow arbitration geeks.  I look forward to another year of blogging.

If you are a party that wants courts to rigidly enforce delegation clauses – sending questions about even the validity of the agreement to arbitration – then you will appreciate a new decision from the Tenth Circuit. In Belnap v. Iasis Healthcare, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 56277 (10th Cir. Jan. 5, 2017), the court refused to do even a spot check of whether defendant’s claims of arbitrability were accurate and enforced the parties’ delegation clause.

Belnap involved a surgeon suing a medical center, its parent company, four doctors on its Medical Executive Committee, and its “risk manager,” for notifying data banks that he had been suspended, but not notifying all relevant organizations when it later vacated his suspension.  The surgeon’s agreement with the medical center had a dispute resolution clause that called for first mediation and then arbitration “administered by JAMS and conducted in accordance with its” rules.  Relying on that agreement, all defendants moved to compel arbitration.  The district court found the medical center could compel arbitration of one of the seven claims, but that the other six were outside the scope of the arbitration clause.  The district court rejected the non-signatories’ attempt to compel arbitration and rejected the argument that the parties had delegated questions of scope to the arbitrator.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit began its analysis, as it should, with the question of who should decide whether the claims are arbitrable. On that question, it found that by incorporating the JAMS Rules into the agreement, the surgeon and the medical center had shown a clear and unmistakable intent to delegate questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator.  It also took exception to the fact that “some courts have suggested that the Tenth Circuit is the only federal appellate court that has deviated from this consensus.” (The consensus being that referencing arbitral rules which delegate arbitrability to an arbitrator is clear and unmistakable agreement to alter the default rule that courts decide those issues.)  It clarified a 1998 decision that had led other courts to that conclusion, thereby appearing to mend any alleged circuit split on that issue.

After finding the arbitrator should decide arguments about scope, however, the 10th Circuit still had to address another of the surgeon’s arguments supporting the court’s review.  The surgeon asked the 10th Circuit to “adopt the ‘wholly groundless’ approach of the Fifth, Sixth, and Federal Circuits.”    That approach allows a district court, after finding the parties delegated arbitrability, to conduct a smell test of sorts: whether the assertion of arbitrability is “wholly groundless.”  The idea is, let’s not let parties with delegation clauses go around enforcing them willy nilly, even in instances where there is no legitimate basis for the claim to be arbitrated.  That would force the plaintiffs to waste time and resources going to arbitration, just to be sent back to court again (we hope).

However, the 10th Circuit “decline[d] to adopt the ‘wholly groundless’ approach.”  It found it is in tension with the inflexible language of SCOTUS’s decisions.  It also cited multiple cases from other federal circuits that require enforcement of a delegation clause, but in fairness it appears that the “wholly groundless” approach was not presented to those appellate courts.  Therefore, there is now a split among the federal circuits regarding whether a court can at least spot-check a defendant’s claim of arbitrability before enforcing a delegation clause.

Finally, to end its arbitrability tome, the Tenth Circuit addressed whether the defendants who were not parties to the arbitration clause could also compel arbitration of the surgeon’s claims because they are “principals and agents” of the medical center. The court found against the non-signatories, finding Utah law did not support binding a parent company to an arbitration clause signed by its subsidiary, and that Utah law also did not support the individuals’ ability to compel arbitration.

Of all the federal circuit courts, I was not expecting the 7th Circuit to venture out on a limb to support the NLRB’s interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) as precluding class arbitration waivers.  After all, the 7th Circuit gets affirmed more than other circuit courts by SCOTUS, earning it a reputation for being fairly conservative.  Yet, contrary to the five other circuits that have already disagreed with the NLRB interpretation, the 7th Circuit just became the first to step out in support of the Board’s precedent.

In Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., 2016 WL 3029464 (7th Cir. May 26, 2016), the arbitration agreement between the employer and its employees called for individual arbitration of disputes and waived “the right to participate in or receive money or any other relief from any class, collective, or representative proceeding.”   Nevertheless, a technical writer (of all the unlikely heroes…) sued the employer in federal court asserting violations of labor laws.  When the employer moved to compel individual arbitration, the employee responded that the arbitration agreement violated the NLRA.   The district court agreed with the employee, and the 7th Circuit affirmed.

Knowing that it was creating a circuit split, the unanimous panel supported its result with as much precedent and analysis as it could muster.  The opinion’s logic is this: Section 7 of the NLRA gives employees the right “to engage in other concerted activities,” and filing class actions constitutes “other concerted activities,” by virtue of federal precedent as well as the statute’s legislative history.  Furthermore, the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA is entitled to deference.  Therefore, the Court held, because the employer forced its employees to agree to a contract that stipulated away the employees’ right to class and collective action, it was unenforceable.

The panel then addressed whether the FAA “overrides” the interpretation of the labor laws.  Finding that the two statutes were not in conflict, the panel rejected any notion that the FAA altered the result.  In particular, the opinion notes that on the whole, the NLRA is very pro-arbitration and therefore does not conflict with the federal policy favoring arbitration.  It then attempts to deal with the pro-class-action-waiver language in Concepcion and Italian Colors by pointing out that: 1) it was dicta, dicta, dicta; and 2) the savings clause in Section Two recognizes that arbitration agreements may be made invalid by other laws.

Would this panel have been so bold if there were not an equally divided 8 justices on the Supreme Court?  I don’t know.  But, I do know that if this decision (and the NLRB precedent) wins the day, and if the recent CFPB proposed regulations are issued and upheld, it will represent a fundamental shift in the use and value of arbitration agreements for large companies that contract with hundreds (or thousands or millions) of employees and consumers at once.

Post script: The 7th Circuit did not persuade the 8th Circuit to change its mind on this issue.  Just a week after the Lewis decision, the 8th Circuit decided Cellular Sales of Missouri v. NLRB, 2016 WL 3093363 (8th Cir. June 2, 2016), in which it reaffirmed its 2013 ruling that the NLRB was simply wrong in concluding that class-action waivers violate the labor laws.  However, the 8th Circuit did affirm the Board’s finding that the company violated the NLRA by drafting an arbitration agreement that would lead a reasonable employee to believe it waived or limited their rights to file unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.

 

Three years ago, this blog catalogued where all the federal circuits stood on the issue of whether an arbitration award that “manifestly disregarded the law” could be vacated under the Federal Arbitration Act, as that is not one of the four bases for vacatur listed in Section 10.  There was a circuit split then, and that circuit split has not gone away.  An analysis this summer shows that, while some circuits have shifted their position slightly, there is still no clear majority on whether the basis is valid.

Three federal appellate courts have maintained a strict reading of SCOTUS’s 2008 Hall Street decision.  The Fifth, Eighth, and Eleventh circuits continue to hold that manifest disregard is no longer an applicable basis for vacating an arbitration award. See McVay v. Halliburton Energy Servs., Inc., 2015 WL 1810950, at *2 (5th Cir. Apr. 22, 2015); Medicine Shoppe Intern., Inc. v. Turner Invs., Inc., 614 F.3d 485, 489 (8th Cir. 2010); Campbell’s Foliage, Inc. v. Federal Crop Ins. Corp., 562 Fed. Appx. 828, 831 (11th Cir. 2014).

The Second, Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth circuits take the opposite view and have allowed arguments to vacate an arbitration award based on manifest disregard of the law. See A & G Coal Corp. v. Integrity Coal Sales, Inc., 565 Fed. Appx. 41, 42-3 (2nd Cir. 2014); Dewan v. Walia, 544 Fed. Appx. 240, 248 (4th Cir. 2013); Renard v. Ameriprise Fin. Servs., Inc., 778 F.3d 563, 567- 69 (7th Cir. 2015); Wetzel’s Pretzels, LLC v. Johnson, 567 Fed. Appx. 493, 494 (9th Cir. 2014); Adviser Dealer Servs., Inc. v. Icon Advisers, Inc., 557 Fed. Appx. 714, 717 (10th Cir. 2014).

Interestingly, more circuit courts have opted for a middle ground in the last few years, declaring that the issue is undecided. The First Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision to vacate an arbitration award for manifestly disregarding the law. Raymond James Fin. Servs., Inc., v. Fenyk, 780 F.3d 59, 63-4 (1st Cir. 2015). The court stated that whether the manifest disregard doctrine remains good law is “uncertain,” but that the alleged error in the arbitrator’s award did not meet that high standard in any case.

In addition to the First Circuit, the Sixth and Third Circuits leave unanswered the question whether manifest disregard is a legitimate basis to vacate an arbitration award. In 2008, the Sixth Circuit decided to continue accepting manifest disregard and overturned an arbitration award on that basis, yet in 2014 it held that the legitimacy of using manifest disregard has not been settled and evaded applying it. See Coffee Beanery, Ltd. v. WW, LLC, 300 Fed. Appx. 415, 419 (6th Cir. 2008); Schafer v. Multiband Corp., 551 Fed. Appx. 814, 818-19 (6th Cir. 2014). Although the Third Circuit has allowed manifest disregard arguments in the past, it recently held that “this court has not yet ruled” on whether manifest disregard is an allowable basis to vacate an award. Bellantuono v. ICAP Secs. USA, LLC, 557 Fed. Appx. 168, 173-74 (3d Cir. 2014).

Litigants hoping to overturn arbitration awards should not take great comfort in the fact that five circuit courts allow manifest disregard arguments.  Even those five circuits are reluctant to vacate arbitration awards on that basis.  In fact, we were able to find only two federal appellate courts, the Fourth and Ninth, that have overturned an arbitration award on that basis since 2009. See Dewan, 544 Fed. Appx. at 248; Comedy Club, Inc. v. Improv West Assocs., 553 F. 3d 1277, 1289-90 ( 9th Cir. 2009)

Here’s the scorecard:

Manifest Disregard Lives Manifest Disregard Dead Status Uncertain
2015 2d, 4th, 7th, 9th, 10th 5th, 8th, 11th 1st, 3d, 6th
2012 2d, 4th, 6th, 9th, 10th 1st, 5th, 7th, 8th, 11th. 3d

ArbitrationNation thanks Bri’An Davis, a law student at the University of Iowa College of Law, for researching and drafting this post.