The Supreme Court issued another arbitration decision today in New Prime v. Oliveira.  And like last week’s decision in Henry Schein, it was unanimous (but Kavanaugh did not participate).  Today’s New Prime decision has two key holdings:  First, it is for courts, and not arbitrators (regardless of any delegation clause) to determine whether the Federal Arbitration Act applies.  Second, the Federal Arbitration Act does not apply to interstate transportation workers.  Those are pretty technical and dry, at least on the surface.

The Oliveira case did not start out as a dry arbitration case.  It started out as a class action by drivers for an interstate trucking company, all of whom were classified as independent contractors by the company, and all of whom alleged wage violations.  In response, the company moved to compel arbitration.

But the drivers had a great case for not arbitrating: the Federal Arbitration Act itself.   Section 1 carves out “contracts of employment of . . . workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”  The drivers argued that they were workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.  The company’s rebuttal was two-fold: 1) the arbitrator should decide that issue, based on the parties’ delegation clause, and 2) the carve-out only applies to employees, not independent contractors.  Those arguments lost; Mr. Oliveira won at both the district court and in the First Circuit.

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Gorsuch agreed with the lower courts.

With respect to the “who decides” question, the Court emphasized that Section 1 “warns” that nothing in the Act shall apply to those interstate workers.  So, the enforcement of Sections 2, and the authority to stay a case and compel arbitration in Sections 3-4, simply don’t apply.  The Court emphasizes the “statute’s sequencing” in its analysis — basically commenting that you don’t get to take advantage of step four of the FAA until you have passed step one.  So, you can throw your delegation clause out the window when the question is whether the FAA applies at all.

With respect to the substantive question, the Court concluded that Section 1’s exemption is not only for those who meet the current definition of “employee,” but it also encompasses independent contractors.  Why?  Because… dictionaries.  In determining the plain meaning of the text of Section 1 when it was adopted, the Court reviewed a lot of old dictionaries and legal authorities and concluded “the evidence before us remains that, as dominantly understood in 1925, a contract of employment did not necessarily imply the existence of an employer-employee or master-servant relationship.”   Therefore, the federal court lacked authority to order arbitration.

This decision raises many questions for me.  For example:

  • Did SCOTUS grant cert in these two easy cases (Henry Schein and New Prime) just to have some unanimous opinions?  Oliveira had already won at the district court and appellate court, so it’s not like SCOTUS needed to jump to his rescue.  (I expect Lamps Plus not to be unanimous…)
  • Why does it follow logically that if the FAA does not apply, then there is no authority to order arbitration?  The parties still have a contract that calls for arbitration, that the drivers are breaching by pursuing their case in court, and there can be remedies for breaching that contract…
  • Why would this exception be limited to interstate transportation workers?  If the text of the exception includes “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” that could blow a huge hole in SCOTUS’s arbitration jurisprudence.  With the case law on federal preemption in mind, pretty much every worker is engaged in interstate commerce…  And Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Epic Systems suggested that the legislative intent was to exclude all workers from the FAA.  If so, this case turns into a backdoor Arbitration Fairness Act.
  • Why can’t these opinions be more engaging?  I swear that Justice Gorsuch was purposely trying to put us to sleep with this one.

I am sure there will be good articles discussing these questions and more in the upcoming days.  Send them my way if you are so inclined!

One of the most confounding doctrines in federal arbitration jurisprudence is the severability doctrine.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held, since Prima Paint in 1967, that courts must enforce arbitration clauses within contracts, even if the entire contract is invalid or unenforceable.  (Most non-arbitration geeks don’t believe me when I tell them that’s the law.)  The only time a court can address the argument for invalidity is if the litigant directs it specifically at the arbitration clause.  For example, an argument that the elves’ contract with Santa is invalid because it’s illegal to pay them in candy canes is an argument about the contract as a whole, and would get sent to arbitration if the elves’ contract had a valid arbitration clause.  On the other hand, an argument that the arbitration clause in the elves’ contract with Santa is unconscionable because it calls for arbitration in the South Pole with Mrs. Claus as the arbitrator *is* specific to the arbitration clause, and should be decided by the court.  Unless, of course, the arbitration clause clearly and unmistakably delegated questions of validity to an arbitrator…

Two courts recently had an opportunity to remind litigants of the severability doctrine.  In Rogers v. Swepi LP, 2018 WL 6444014 (6th Cir. Dec. 10, 2018), the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court judge who failed to apply the severability doctrine.  In Rogers, a putative class of landowners brought suit against Shell for claims arising out of lease agreements.  Shell responded by moving to compel arbitration.  The landowners argued that the arbitration clause within the lease agreement (as well as the whole “second phase” of the lease) was only triggered upon payment of a bonus.  The court found this was an attack on more than just the arbitration clause, and therefore application of the severability doctrine called for the issue of arbitrability to be decided by an arbitrator.  (However, whether class arbitration was permissible should be decided by the court on remand.)

Similarly, the Supreme Court of Montana sent a dispute over arbitrability to an arbitrator in Peeler v. Rocky Mountain Log Homes Canada, Inc., 2018 WL 6498693 (Mont. Dec 11, 2018).   In Peeler, an owner sued both the design professional and contractor over claims relating to construction of a custom log home.  Only the contractor’s agreement had an arbitration clause, but the complaint alleged the design firm was an affiliated entity that should be treated the same as the contractor.  So the contractor and design firm moved to compel arbitration.  The homeowner argued that the arbitration agreement was permissive, not mandatory, and that the defendants had waived their right to arbitrate by waiting to assert it until after he filed suit.  Those arguments did not prevail at the trial court or the appellate court.  The Montana Supreme Court noted that the defendants did not waive their right to arbitrate, and because the owner did not challenge the validity or enforceability of the arbitration agreement, his arguments should be heard by an arbitrator.  Finally, the court found that the design firm could compel arbitration as a matter of equitable estoppel.

Speaking of construction cases, the Supreme Court of Nevada continues its campaign to remind all construction litigators that the FEDERAL Arbitration Act governs even local disputes between homeowners and contractors.  Since its Ballasteros decision in February of this year, it has issued two more decisions reiterating that holding: Lanier, 2018 WL 6264809 (Nev. Nov. 28, 2018), and Greystone Nevada, 2018 WL 6264756 (Ne. Nov. 28, 2018).  As evidence of interstate commerce, Lanier points to three things: the builder was incorporated in Delaware while the homeowners were Nevada residents, the large number of subcontractors and material suppliers who worked on the home made it likely that at least some of them are engaged in interstate commerce, and “in the aggregate, the general practice of developing, buying, and selling homes substantially affects interstate commerce.”  All of this mattered because trial court judges were relying on Nevada anti-arbitration rules to refuse to compel arbitration.  Those rules are preempted if the dispute is governed by the FAA.

In a fight over whether a single lending transaction involved interstate commerce, the Supreme Court of Nebraska found the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) applied and preempted its state arbitration act.  Wilczewski v. Charter West Nat’l Bank, __ N.W.2d__ (Neb. Dec. 9, 2016).

The case involved buyers who purchased a home from a bank (who owned it after a foreclosure) and then sued the bank alleging misrepresentation and fraud.  The bank moved to compel arbitration.  In response, the buyers argued (among other things) that the purchase agreement did not comply with the notice provision in Nebraska’s arbitration act.  The bank conceded that fact, but argued that the FAA applied, so it was immaterial.

The buyers pointed out that the real estate was in Nebraska, the buyers were residents of Nebraska, and the alleged statements were made in Nebraska.  Therefore, they argued, the purchase did not “affect interstate commerce.”  Nebraska’s courts disagreed.  Its highest court issued a well-reasoned analysis (with citations in footnotes!  Go Bryan Garner!) concluding that “there does not have to be a multi-state transaction for the FAA to be applicable.”  Instead, it pointed out the broad and nationwide impact of residential real estate lending was the critical factor in implicating the FAA.  Although the bank had briefed the multi-state nature of the homeowner’s insurance, title insurance, cashier’s check, etc., the court called those “tangential details” and did not rely on them in reaching its conclusion.

The court also distinguished opinions from other courts that refused to compel arbitration of disputes from individual residential real estate transactions.  It commented “none of the cases declining to compel arbitration involved a comprehensive practice or activity of lending money on residential real estate, enforcing liens, acquiring title, and reselling…. We need not decide and do not suggest whether the FAA applies to a simple contract for the sale of residential real estate.”

Having done the heavy lifting of finding the FAA applied, the court easily concluded that the buyers’ claims fell within the scope of the arbitration clause and therefore affirmed the lower court’s decision to compel arbitration.

Before I can sum up 2015 in arbitration (next post!), I need to report on some new cases coming out of the federal and state appellate courts in recent weeks.  Two are just good reminders of basic arbitration law, but the third addresses an interesting question of double recovery.

Our first “reminder” case comes from New York’s highest court.  In Cusimano v. Schnurr, 2015 WL 8787554 (N.Y. Dec. 16, 2015), that court held that the Federal Arbitration Act applies, even to intrafamily transactions among New York residents (sing: “it’s a family affaaaair…”), and even when defendants argue their family business is “passive” and has no impact on interstate commerce.  The court basically said family shmamily, look at the type of business you have and what it owns.  “The idea that the intrafamilial nature of the agreements has some bearing on whether the FAA is applicable finds no support in the caselaw.”  Instead, the fact that the family business owned commercial properties inside and outside New York was key.  (But, the plaintiffs waived their right to arbitrate by litigating aggressively for a year.)

The second “reminder” comes from the Eleventh Circuit and relates to appeal timing.  In the Wise Alloys case, 2015 WL 8119326 (11th Cir. Dec. 8, 2015), that court held that the defendant did not appeal the district court order compelling arbitration within the allowed deadline.  (The court had fun with this one, quoting Carole King to say “it’s too late…”)  Critically, the entire complaint related to the union’s effort to compel the defendant company to arbitration.  The district court compelled arbitration in June of 2012, but the company did not appeal until after the arbitration was complete and the award had been confirmed in late 2014 (well beyond the 30-day deadline in the federal rules).  The lesson from this case is that while Section 16 of the FAA commands that “interlocutory” orders compelling arbitration are not immediately appealable, not all orders compelling arbitration are interlocutory: if the only relief a complaint seeks is an order compelling arbitration, then the order granting that relief is final and immediately appealable.

The most interesting outcome in this group comes from the Ninth Circuit (with Judge Shira Scheindlin from SDNY sitting by designation on the opposite coast).  In Uthe Technology Corp. v. Aetrium, Inc., 2015 8538090 (9th Cir. Nov. 19, 2015), the plaintiff had already been awarded millions of dollars against related defendants in an arbitration and then brought a RICO claim for treble damages in U.S. federal court for the same conspiracy.  The question was whether that RICO claim was precluded by the “one satisfaction” rule that avoids double recovery.  (P.s. That arbitration lasted two decades.  Score one for litigation.)   The Ninth Circuit found the RICO claims were not precluded, largely because the arbitration claim was against a different set of defendants, and RICO provides remedies that were not available to Uthe in the arbitration, and the arbitration award specifically noted that it was made without prejudice to Uthe’s right to bring further claims in federal court.  The 9th Circuit did note that any damages in the RICO case must be offset by the sums paid as a result of the arbitral award

The Supreme Court of South Carolina just ruled that contracts for the sale of residential property are not interstate commerce, and therefore are outside the reach of the Federal Arbitration Act.  Bradley v. Brentwood Homes, Inc., __ S.E.2d __, 2012 WL 2847616 (S.C. July 11, 2012).  That is a surprising result in my view, given that the FAA applies to all agreements that involve or affect interstate commerce, Allied-Bruce Terminix Cos. v. Dobson, 513 U.S. 265, 271-72 (1995), and the Supreme Court has been largely unreceptive to states’ attempts to carve out certain types of arbitration contracts (like those in nursing home contracts). 

In Bradley, the plaintiff bought a “completed dwelling” in Myrtle Beach from defendant.  Two years later, the plaintiff sued in state court, alleging construction defects.  The parties engaged in six months of discovery before the defendant asserted its right to arbitrate and moved to compel arbitration.  The district court denied the motion, not on the basis of waiver (which would have been much simpler), but by finding that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable.  It held the arbitration agreement was unenforceable under South Carolina’s Uniform Arbitration Act, because it did not comply with technical requirements of that statute, and also held that the agreement did not involve interstate commerce and therefore was not covered by the Federal Arbitration Act (which would likely have made the agreement enforceable, as the FAA does not have the same technical requirements about font size, etc). 

The facts related to interstate commerce are these: 

  • the agreement stated that the defendant was “not acting as a contractor” for the plaintiff;
  • the defendant did, however, construct the home using subcontractors, materials and suppliers from outside South Carolina;
  • the defendant provided a warranty from a national company; and
  • the plaintiff used an out of state bank to finance the transaction.

Despite those last three facts, the South Carolina court held that the FAA did not apply to this arbitration clause.  The analysis relied heavily on the court’s assessment that real estate contracts are unique; it begins with a “discussion of the historical intrastate character of real estate transactions.”  To support the exceptional nature of real estate contracts, it cited a state court case from South Carolina and federal district court cases from Puerto Rico and Kentucky.  The court held that none of the facts cited by the defendant (out-of-state banks, warranty programs, subcontractors, supplies) “negate the intrastate nature of the sale and purchase of residential real estate.”  The court was careful to narrow its ruling, however, noting that if the agreement had been for the construction of the home, instead of for the completed dwelling, its arbitration clause would have been governed by the FAA. 

Because the conventional wisdom is that the vast majority of arbitration agreements are covered by the FAA, this decision provides rare support to parties who want to keep their claims in court, despite an arbitration agreement that could be unenforceable under state law grounds.