Pick up any textbook or treatise on arbitration law, and you’ll find the same thing in the chapter on enforcing arbitral awards: courts cannot conduct a merits review of awards. Courts, in other words, do not second guess the conclusions of the arbitrators about law or facts.

Or at least they’re not supposed to do so.

Still, losing parties often try to convince a reviewing court that the arbitrator “exceeded her powers.”  These sorts of excess of authority arguments have become quite common.

That’s exactly the sort of argument at issue in a hot-off-the-presses Tenth Circuit case, MEMC II, LLC v. Cannon Storage Sys., Inc., No. 18-6079, 2019 WL 549633 (10th Cir. Feb. 12, 2019).

In the case, the parties entered into a standard form construction contract, containing an arbitration clause. Cannon was supposed to build a commercial storage facility for MEMC. A dispute arose because Cannon decided that it needed to make some changes to the structural plans. When MEMC discovered this, it refused to continue to pay Cannon. Cannon then initiated arbitration to recover the payments.

MEMC defended by saying that Cannon had committed a material breach. It maintained that, under applicable Texas law, Cannon’s unilateral decision to depart from the specifications constituted a per se material breach discharging it from its duty to pay under the contract. The arbitrator listened to the arguments at a three-day hearing, reviewed over 100 exhibits, and concluded that MEMC had breached by failing to pay Cannon. She also found that Cannon had breached by not getting approval for several of the changes it made, but that the cost of remediating Cannon’s breaches had not be sufficiently proven by MEMC. Accordingly, she awarded $143,608 in damages to Cannon and nothing to MEMC.

MEMC challenged the award on the basis of excess of authority. The argument was essentially that “the arbitrator was required to apply the law and by awarding damages when the law would not allow for recovery of damages, the arbitrator exceeded her authority.”

The Tenth Circuit took the opportunity to give us all an Arbitration 101 lesson. Citing another Tenth Circuit case from last year – which indicates that parties may not be learning the lesson – the Court said, “[E]rrors in either the arbitrator’s factual findings or his interpretation of the law (unless that interpretation shows a manifest disregard of controlling law) do not justify review or reversal on the merits of the controversy.” (quoting Dish Network L.L.C. v. Ray, 900 F.3d 1240, 1243 (10th Cir. 2018)).

[F]ederal courts strongly defer to an arbitrator’s decisions. Because of this, “a party seeking relief under § 10(a)(4) bears a heavy burden.” [Oxford Health Plans LLC, 569 U.S. 564, 564 (2013) (quotations omitted).] “[C]onvincing a court of an arbitrator’s error—even his grave error—is not enough” to warrant vacatur under § 10(a)(4). Id. at 572. “Because the parties ‘bargained for the arbitrator’s construction of their agreement,’ an arbitral decision ‘even arguably construing or applying the contract’ must stand, regardless of a court’s view of its (de)merits.” [citations omitted]

I am a true arbitration nerd.  But, when SCOTUS takes a THIRD arbitration case for its upcoming term, I wonder if the Justices are more obsessed with arbitration than I am.  (Reminder of the other two here.)  If they hear about the same total number of cases as this year (69), arbitration will make up more than 4% of their docket.  Now, 4% isn’t huge.  For reference, intellectual property cases made up less than 4% of cases filed in federal district courts last year, and there were three I.P. cases decided by SCOTUS (two on inter partes review and the WesternGeco case).  At least I.P. cases have a category in the annual judiciary report, though.  That’s more than arbitration can say.  And still, it has three cases before the Supremes.

Enough stats, what is this case?  It is Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., in which SCOTUS is going to resolve the circuit split over the “wholly groundless” doctrine.  Given how the NLRB decision just came out, I don’t think I’m stepping too far out on a limb if I predict: “wholly groundless” will be grounded.  (Maybe even “grounded wholly?”  Seriously, there has got to be some good word play possible, but I am too tired from watching the World Cup to develop it.)  Put simply, that doctrine will not stand in the way of any future delegation clauses.

(Thanks to Mark Kantor for being the first to tell me certiorari was granted in this case.)

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Switching gears, there are three new decisions from state high courts on the arbitrability of claims against nursing homes.  Two enforce the arbitration clauses, and one decidedly does not.

Nebraska and Colorado issued the pro-arbitration decisions, in both cases reversing a trial court’s refusal to enforce arbitration agreements.  In Colorow Health Care, LLC v. Fischer, 2018 WL 2771051 (Colo. June 11, 2018), the district court denied the nursing home’s motion to compel arbitration because it was not in bold text, as required by a state statute.  Without any discussion of the FAA (which would have been a much easier ground for reversal), the Colorado Supreme Court found that the statute only requires substantial compliance, and the defendant had substantially complied (by including the right language, in a larger font size than required, just not in bold). In Heineman v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, 300 Neb. 187 (June 8, 2018), the district court had found the arbitration agreement lacked mutuality, violated the state arbitration statute, and violated public policy (because of the CMS rule on arbitration).  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Nebraska found mutuality, found the FAA applied and preempted the state arbitration statute, and noted that the CMS rule had been enjoined.

A week later, though, Nebraska rejected arbitrability in a different case against a nursing home.  In Cullinane v. Beverly Enterprises-Nebraska, Inc., 300 Neb. 210 (June 15, 2018), the issue was whether the arbitration agreement signed by the deceased’s husband was enforceable.  He admitted he signed all the admission documents, but stated in an affidavit that he understood he had to agree to arbitrate for his wife to be admitted to the facility.  He also stated that he did not understood he was waiving his wife’s right to a jury trial, and would not have signed if he had known that and that arbitration was optional.  Applying the FAA and state contract law, the Nebraska Supreme Court found the district court was not “clearly wrong” when it found the husband was fraudulently induced to executing the arbitration agreement for his wife.  Critically, the facility had not introduced any affidavit contradicting the alleged statements made at the time of admission.

Lots of folks are writing about the long-term impact of SCOTUS’s recent decision in Epic Systems, but it is also important to note that there has been immediate, short-term impact.

For example, a lead plaintiff agreed to take her sex discrimination case against a law firm  to individual arbitration, abandoning her putative class action, after the Epic decision was released.  A federal judge is ready to dismiss a separate class action against Epic Systems (regarding overtime pay) as a result of the new decision.  And a class action against Chipotle may get sliced and diced up, with about 30% of employees being sent to individual arbitration, while 70% of the class can proceed in court (because they started working for the chain before it instituted the arbitration program). There must be dozens (hundreds?) of similar employment class actions around the country.

Speaking of the trickle down effects of SCOTUS’s arbitration cases, last year’s Kindred decision is certainly a relevant headwater for the Supreme Court of West Virginia’s recent opinion upholding the arbitration agreement in nursing home admission documents.  Although West Virginia used to be reliably anti-arbitration, its recent decisions are pro-arbitration.  So, it’s not too surprising that in AMFM LLC v. Shanklin, 2018 WL 2467770 (W. Va. May 30, 2018), that court reversed a trial court’s ruling that the arbitration agreement signed by the resident’s daughter was not enforceable.  Careful not to interpret its statutes and common law regarding power of attorney in a way that stands as an obstacle to the FAA, West Virginia’s high court found that the daughter’s role as understudy in the POA document (fine, it says “successor” or “alternate”) was sufficient to bind her mother to the arbitration agreement.  The position drew a spirited dissent from one lone justice.

 

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.

 

The last post focused on three recent state appellate court decisions that refused to compel arbitration or vacated an award, and this follow-up post focuses on seven recent cases that are friendly to arbitration.

My favorite is from Montana.  Although none of its arbitration decisions have been addressed by SCOTUS, Montana decided to preempt any federal preemption issues by adjusting its stance on unconscionability.  (It waited five years after the 9th Circuit put it on notice, though.)  Lenz v. FSC Sec. Corp., 2018 WL 1603927 (Mont. April 3, 2018), involves claims by investors against investment advisors over “substantial losses.”  The defendants moved to compel arbitration and the district court granted the motion.  On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed.  In its decision, it took the opportunity to clarify that the previous test it had used to determine unconscionability was improper, because it mixed unconscionability analysis with the reasonable expectations doctrine from the insurance context.  (Read this mea culpa: “We have continued to perpetuate confusion by inaccurately referencing [bad tests for unconscionability] …Even more problematic in particular regard to arbitration agreements, we have failed to recognize the manifest incompatibility of the insurance-specific reasonable expectations doctrine as a generally applicable contract principle.”)  I read that as “we do not want to be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The others can be reviewed more quickly:

  • Substantive unconscionability cannot be established by showing only that the arbitration agreement is broad in scope.  SCI Alabama Funeral Servs. v. Hinton, 2018 WL 1559795 (Ala. March 30, 2018) [I’m a bit surprised that needed clarifying];
  • The Federal Arbitration Act applies to arbitration agreements within a common interest community’s covenants (and preempts conflicting state law).  In U.S. Home Corp. v. The Michael Ballesteros Trust, 2018 WL 1755536 (Nev. April 12, 2018), 12 homeowners argued that the FAA did not apply to the arbitration agreement in their covenants because land is traditionally a local concern.  The court found that the covenants’ larger purpose was to facilitate the creation of a community of multiple homes, and multiple out-of-state business contributed to construction of the homes.  Therefore, the FAA controlled and preempted Nevada rules requiring the same procedures as in court and requiring arbitration agreements to be more conspicuous than other text in a contract;
  • Non-signatories may compel arbitration if the plaintiff’s claims are based on facts that are “intertwined” with arbitrable claims.  Melendez v. Horning, 2018 WL 1191150 (N.D. March 8, 2018) (reversing district court order denying motion to compel arbitration);
  • Scope of arbitration agreement broad enough to encompass claims against related entity.  Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations v. Adams, 2018 WL 1355966 (Ala. March 16, 2018), concluded that where the employee’s arbitration agreement was with the “Company,” which was defined to include affiliate and related companies, the employee’s suit against a related company was arbitrable;
  • Arbitrator did not manifestly disregard contractual language in construction contract.  In ABC Building Corp. v. Ropolo Family, 2018 WL 1309761 (R.I. Mar. 14, 2018), the owner tried to vacate an arbitration award in favor of the general contractor.  It relied on contract language requiring submission of payroll records with payment applications in order to argue that the contractor could not receive additional compensation for labor without having provided that contemporaneous documentation.  However, the arbitrator considered that provision of the contract in his decision-making (and the owner had never complained), so vacatur was inappropriate (one judge dissented);
  • Delegation clause must be enforced if not specifically challenged.  Family Dollar Stores of W. Va. v. Tolliver, 2018 WL 1074947 (Feb. 27, 2018).  I know, it’s a stretch to call this one a spring decision.  But, it’s snowing in Minnesota on April 14th, so my seasons are totally confused.  That’s why we call it “Minnesnowta.”

 

While I was busy writing deep thoughts about arbitration at the end of 2017 (see here and here), courts around the country rudely kept churning out new arbitration opinions.  Hmph.  So, I have some catching up to do.  I start with one that has most captured my attention, Snow v. Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, ___ A.3d ___, 2017 WL 6520900 (Me. Dec. 21, 2017).  It finds an arbitration agreement between a law firm and its client unenforceable, because the law firm did not specifically explain to the client that arbitration entails a loss of a jury trial, narrower appeal rights, and different evaluation of evidence.

Susan Snow hired the Bernstein firm to handle a civil action.  The opinion does not tell us anything about Snow or her level of sophistication.  But, it does tell us that she signed Bernstein’s standard terms of engagement, which included an arbitration clause.  The arbitration clause dealt specifically with arbitrability of “fee disputes,” and then said “any other dispute that arises out of or relates to this agreement or the services provided by the law firm shall also, at the election of either party, be subject to binding arbitration.”

Snow later sued the law firm for malpractice, and the firm moved to compel arbitration.  The district court denied that motion, and the high court of Maine affirmed that ruling.  Both courts found that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because the law firm had not verbally discussed the arbitration clause with Snow and informed her of its “scope and effect”.

The Snow opinion used “public policy” to invalidate the arbitration agreement.  It largely relied on two bases for its public policy.  First, a 2002 formal opinion from the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, which found that because attorneys are fiduciaries, and arbitration “results in a client waiving significant rights,” an attorney must explain the implication of the proposed arbitration agreement so that the client can make an informed decision.  The ABA opinion requires an attorney to explain that the client is waiving a jury trial, waiving discovery, and losing a right to appeal.  Second, the Snow opinion relied on a 2011 opinion from Maine’s Professional Ethics Commission, requiring attorneys to obtain informed consent “as to the scope and effect of an arbitration requirement or a jury waiver clause.”

Because the law firm in this case did not dispute that it made no attempt to discuss the arbitration agreement with Ms. Snow before she signed it, and the court found the written arbitration agreement “was not sufficiently clear to inform her”, the court declared the arbitration agreement unenforceable.

So, what is required in Maine for an attorney to have a binding arbitration agreement with a client?  “The attorney must effectively communicate to the client that malpractice claims are covered under the agreement to arbitrate.  The attorney must also explain, or ensure that the client understands, the differences between the arbitral forum and the judicial forum, including the absence of a jury and such ‘procedural aspects of forum choice such as timing, costs, appealability, and the evaluation of evidence and credibility.'”  All of that should be done with regard to the particular client’s capacity to understand the information.

When’s the last time you heard a state supreme court espouse the importance of the right to a jury trial?  And pound on the importance of specifically and knowingly waiving that right?  Well, the Kindred case comes to mind for me.  And SCOTUS reversed Kentucky’s public policy rule in that case, finding it was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  Kindred stated noted that the Kentucky “court did exactly what Concepcion barred: adopt a legal rule hinging on the primary characteristic of an arbitration agreement–namely, a waiver of the right to go to court and receive a jury trial.”  The Snow decision does not cite to the Kindred case, even though Kindred came out in May and Snow wasn’t argued until October of 2017.  Instead, the Snow decision gives a preemption analysis that defies logic.  It says its rule “that attorneys fully inform a client of the scope and effect” of an arbitration clause “does not ‘single out’ arbitration agreements.”  Say what?  The court goes on to say that it would apply to any client “decision to waive significant rights,” but does not offer any cites to Maine law requiring attorneys to give oral primers to clients on anything other than arbitration  Indeed, the Snow opinion’s emphasis on jury trial, appealability, and evidence show it’s rule hinges on primary characteristics of arbitration, just like Kentucky’s ill-fated rule.

Despite the similarities with Kindred, would SCOTUS treat this case differently because attorneys are held to a higher standard?  The Ninth Circuit has affirmed a decision finding the arbitration clause in an lawyer’s engagement letter unconscionable.  And the ABA favors the higher standard (but I am not aware it has reconsidered its opinion in light of recent preemption decisions).  But, I have a hard time distinguishing the rule in Snow from the one that was reversed in Kindred.

Whenever people ask me why I choose arbitration law to write and talk about, one of the reasons I give is that the law is in flux, creating a demand for information and analysis.  Despite the fact that the Federal Arbitration Act has been around for over 90 years, there are constantly new developments in its interpretation.  Especially in the past two decades, with the Supreme Court highly engaged in the enforcement of arbitration agreements, the pace of legal development has quickened.  That pace means that litigants, advocates, arbitrators and judges are struggling to keep up.  It also means that even on recurring issues, there is still a lack of consensus on how to apply the rules that have been developed.

To demonstrate this point, I went back through the important cases from 2017.  I found multiple instances where two cases with very similar facts received opposite results.  And I am not talking about circuit splits over novel issues like the NLRB and “wholly groundless” exception.  I am talking about issues like formation, waiver, and non-signatories, where the “rules” have ostensibly been settled for some time.

Two Tales of Non-Signatories

These two cases involve a bank teaming up with a retail entity to issue branded credit cards that offered rewards.  The credit card agreement, which called for arbitration of disputes, was only between the consumers and the banks, however. In each case, plaintiffs sued the retail entity regarding the card and the retail entity moved to compel arbitration as a non-signatory to the credit card agreement.  In one case, White v. Sunoco, Inc., 2017 WL 3864616 (3d Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), the retail entity’s motion was denied.  In the other, Bluestem Brands, Inc. v. Shade, 2017 WL 4507090 (W. Va. Oct. 6, 2017), the retail entity’s motion was granted.  While these cases depend on the laws of different states, the courts were applying the same general estoppel rules, but reaching opposite results.

Two Tales of Waiver

Whether a party has waived its contractual right to arbitrate is an issue that comes up regularly.  Yet it remains surprisingly hard to predict whether a court will find waiver or not on any set of circumstances.

These two cases involve lenders bringing collection actions in state court for credit card debts.  In both, they were granted a default judgment.  And in both, the credit card holder later sued for problems with the collection efforts.  In response to that suit, the lenders moved to compel arbitration.  In one case, Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 156 A.3d 807 (Md. Mar. 24, 2017), the court denied the motion to compel, finding the lender had waived its rights.  In the other, Hudson v. Citibank, 387 P.3d 42 (Alaska Dec. 16, 2016), the court granted the motion to compel, finding the lender did not waive its rights.  In both cases, the analysis turned on whether the default action and later action were sufficiently related.

Two Tales of Formation

All of us do more and more of our business over mobile devices and the internet, where we don’t physically sign our name to contracts, and in fact we generally don’t read the terms and conditions.  That leads to hard legal questions over when a contract is validly formed and what terms the parties agreed to.

In these two cases, consumers have little or no choice between providers.  In order to sign up for the service, they receive one message.  In the first case, the message is “your account…[is] governed by the terms of use at [defendant’s website].”  In the second case, the message is “by creating an [] account, you agree to the TERMS OF SERVICE & PRIVACY POLICY.”  The consumers did not have to take any affirmative act to consent to the terms other than proceeding to set up their account.  In both cases, consumers later sued the provider and the providers moved to compel arbitration based on the terms available at their websites.  The consumers responded by arguing the parties had not validly formed any arbitration agreement.

In the first case, the provider was not successful in compelling arbitration.  James v. Global Tellink Corp., 852 F.3d 262 (3d Cir. Mar. 29, 2017).  In the second case, the provider was successful in compelling arbitration.  Meyer v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 868 F.3d 66 (2d Cir. Aug. 17, 2017).  Can it be that the wording difference between “your account.. is governed” and “by creating an account, you agree” explains the outcomes?  Or the fact that the consumers in the Uber case could have just clicked on the terms from the same device they were using to set up the account, while the prisoners in the first case would have had to hang up their telephones, find a computer and find the website?  The cases really give us no assistance in figuring that out.

Maybe every area of law has similar issues regarding the predictability of decisions.  But arbitration law is rife with legal “rules” to guide decision making that are so flexible as to hardly constitute rules at all.  And courts have not yet applied those rules enough times to allow them to develop a systemic approach, with internal consistency between the decisions.  And I predict that will only get worse, not better, as consumers and employees find new and creative ways to challenge arbitration agreements.

Just five months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on a nursing home arbitration dispute in Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark It held that the Kentucky supreme court’s rationale for not enforcing the arbitration agreement was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  Before that, multiple state courts had found state law bases for refusing to enforce arbitration agreements in nursing home agreements.

So, what is a state high court to do post-Kindred?  Wyoming did the logical thing: enforce the arbitration agreement.  In Kindred Healthcare Operating, Inc. v. Boyd, 2017 WL 4545742 (Wyo. Oct. 12, 2017), wrongful death claims were made against the nursing home.  When the defendant moved to compel arbitration based on the arbitration agreement signed by the decedent’s daughter, the plaintiff responded that the arbitration agreement was not enforceable for three reasons.  First, because the daughter did not have authority; second, because the agreement was unconscionable; and third the agreement was invalid because it selected the rules of the National Arbitration Forum (NAF) to govern the arbitration.  The district court denied the motion to compel.

Wyoming’s Supreme Court reversed, making short work of the plaintiff’s allegations.  It found that the daughter’s general power of attorney, which gave her “full power and authority to … contract” (among other powers), authorized her to sign the arbitration agreement for decedent.  It found that the arbitration agreement was not unconscionable, in part because it stated in bold print that it was optional and the resident would be admitted even if it was not signed.  Finally, it found that even though the parties agreed to arbitrate in accordance with the NAF rules “then in effect” (and the NAF no longer conducted consumer arbitrations) that did not invalidate the agreement.  That was because the agreement allowed the parties to select a different set of rules, and the NAF rules were not “an essential term” of the agreement.

I expect this may indicative of what we see from state courts regarding nursing home arbitrations after Kindred.

The “Summer of Arbitration” draws to a close tomorrow, if you can believe it.  (On the first day of fall, it is supposed to be 91 degrees in Minnesota.  Yikes.)  But before I close that chapter, let’s take a look at a theme that emerged in these last weeks: non-signatories losing their attempts to compel arbitration (see last post).

In one case, Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo, sued Uber (and others) for misappropriating trade secrets.  Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 2017 WL 4018404 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 13, 2017).  Although no defendant had an arbitration agreement with Waymo, they moved to compel arbitration based on an arbitration agreement between Waymo and its former employee.   (The employee allegedly brought the secrets to Uber after downloading 14,000 Waymo files.  That is a lot of thumb drives.)  Defendants argued that equitable estoppel applied to compel arbitration, because the source of the claims was the employee’s breach of his employment agreement.  However, the district court  and appellate court found the complaint did not allege any breach of the employment agreement, and did not rely on or use the terms of the employment agreement as the foundation of its claims.  Therefore, Waymo did not have to abide by the terms of the arbitration clause in the employment agreement.

Non-signatories got the same result in White v. Sunoco, Inc., 2017 WL 3864616 (3d Cir. Sept. 5, 2017).  In that case, a putative class of plaintiffs sued Sunoco, alleging fraud and misrepresentations induced them to get a Sunoco Rewards Card from Citibank.  The plaintiffs alleged they were promised rewards like a five cent/gallon discount on gas purchases, but they did not receive the rewards.  Sunoco moved to compel arbitration based on the credit card agreement between the plaintiffs and Citibank.  The district court denied the motion and the Third Circuit affirmed.  Critically, it found that neither of the situations were present that support applying equitable estoppel: concerted conduct between the Sunoco and Citibank; or plaintiff’s reliance on the credit card agreement.  However, the dissenting judge found that the promotional materials should be considered an integrated agreement with the credit card, such that Sunoco was a party to the deal.

Again in In Re Henson, 2017 WL 3862458 (9th Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), the non-signatory was unable to compel arbitration.  Verizon customers brought a claim against a “middle man” for internet advertisements; that middle man had contracted with Verizon to collect data from users’ mobile devices and then deliver targeted advertisements to them.  The middle man moved to compel arbitration based on the customers’ arbitration agreement with Verizon.  The district court granted the motion based on equitable estoppel, and the plaintiff asked the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus to vacate the order.  The Ninth Circuit found the relevant factors weighed “heavily in favor” of granting the writ.  The key factors in favor of vacating the order compelling arbitration were: the fact that the plaintiff could not arbitrate in a representative or class capacity; the district court erred in finding equitable estoppel because the claims against the middle man did not rely on terms from Verizon’s customer agreement, and there were no allegations of collusion.

So, is equitable estoppel losing favor with the courts, or are defendants just trying to use it in situations where it doesn’t belong?

In two recent decisions, the Alabama Supreme Court made clear that if an arbitration clause specifies it only applies to disputes between the two parties who sign the clause, that will be strictly enforced.  No third party can enforce the arbitration agreement.

In Nissan N. Am. v. Scott, 2017 WL 3446129 (Ala. Aug. 11, 2017), a customer brought suit in court against Nissan and its dealership, after her car (a “Juke” in case you are curious) spontaneously caught fire. The purchase agreement between the customer and dealership stated, in part, that “all claims, demands, disputes . . . between them arising from…the sale” shall be settled by binding arbitration. The dealership moved to compel arbitration. The customer did not dispute her obligation to arbitrate with the dealership, but said she didn’t want to proceed in arbitration with the dealership and also in court against Nissan (a position she shifted on appeal). So, the trial court sent the whole thing to arbitration.

Unlike in the Toyota case a few years ago (a putative class action), Nissan objected to going to arbitration and appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court noted that “judicial economy . . . is not a proper basis for compelling arbitration against a nonsignatory.” Furthermore, it found the scope of the arbitration clause was limited to disputes between the dealership and the customer.

Curiously, the Alabama Supreme Court resolved a very similar case just a week before adjudicating the Juke. In Daphne Automotive, LLC v. Eastern Shore Neurology Clinic, Inc., 2017 WL 3446127 (Ala. Aug. 11, 2017), an employer sued a car dealership after the title to a car it purchased for use by an employee got bungled. In short, title was supposed to be in the employee’s name, but listing the employer as lienholder. The dealership neglected to list the employer as the lienholder.  The purchase agreement for the car was signed by the employee and provided for arbitration of disputes between the employee and the dealership.

No one would have even noticed that mistake if the employee had not gotten fired and refused to return the car. (And then the Sheriff’s office attempted to arrest the boss. Drama!) At that point, the truth came tumbling out and the employer sued the dealership. The dealership moved to compel arbitration and the trial court denied the motion. On appeal, the court found it did not need to address whether the employer was a third-party beneficiary (and therefore could enforce the arbitration clause) or even whether the doctrine of equitable estoppel applied to force arbitration. Instead, the court found the scope of the arbitration agreements themselves were “limited to disputes that arise ‘between them,’ i.e. the ‘buyer/lessor’ [employee] and the ‘dealer[ship]’”. “Stated differently, the language employed in the arbitration agreements is not broad enough to compass the plaintiffs who are nonsignatories to those agreements.”

This is an important drafting lesson.  If the arbitration clause is being placed in a consumer contract, and the consumer is likely to sue related parties, it is worth thinking about whether to broaden the scope of the arbitration clause to include those claims as well.