There are only four ways to avoid an arbitration agreement.  You can prove: 1)  it was never formed; 2) it was formed, but is invalid under state law; 3) the current dispute is outside the scope of it; or 4) the other party waived their right to arbitrate (through litigation conduct).  Today’s post is about the third method.  Because of the federal presumption in favor of arbitrability, which applies when courts are determining whether the parties’ dispute falls within the scope of the clause, it is not the most common way to evade an arbitration agreement.   Yet, I collected four recent decisions in which courts find the parties’ dispute is not covered by their arbitration agreement.

In Anderson v. Deere & Co., 2018 WL 5262778 (Mont. Oct. 23, 2018), the Montana Supreme Court found that a fight between John Deere Company and the former owner of one of its dealerships was not arbitrable.  The Dealer Agreement had an arbitration clause obligating the Dealer, and its guarantors, officers, and shareholders, to arbitrate “any dispute” “between Dealer and Company.”  The plaintiff signed the Dealer Agreement as managing partner of the Dealer and as guarantor.  Later, the plaintiff sold his interest in the Dealer and sued Deere for tortious interference.  The trial court denied the motion to compel and the supreme court affirmed.  It focused on the language saying arbitrable disputes were those “between Dealer and Company,” and found that because the plaintiff alleged defendant committed torts against him personally, not as part of “Dealer,” there was no obligation to arbitrate.  One judge wrote a special concurrence, disagreeing with the majority’s finding on scope.

In Perez v. DirecTV, 2018 WL 5115531 (9th Cir. Oct. 19, 2018), the 9th Circuit found the named plaintiff in a putative class action did not have to arbitrate her claims for violations of the Communications Act.  DirecTV’s Customer Agreement with the plaintiff specifically exempted disputes “involving a violation of the Communications Act”.  That sounds fairly straightforward, but one member of the panel dissented, finding the exception was ambiguous and therefore should have been resolved in favor of arbitration.

In Pictet Overseas Inc. v. Helvetia Trust, 2018 WL 4560685 (11th Cir. Sept. 24, 2018), the 11th Circuit affirmed a district court’s conclusion that the plaintiff’s claims were not arbitrable.  The dispute was between investment trusts whose funds had been stolen, on one hand, and the owners and affiliates of a Swiss Bank on the other.  The trusts started a FINRA arbitration, but the Swiss Bank objected that the claims did not belong in FINRA arbitration.  FINRA Rule 12200 requires FINRA members and associated persons to arbitrate when the dispute “arises in connection with the business activities of the member or the associated person.”  There was no dispute that the Swiss Bank was a FINRA member, but the court had to interpret the meaning of “business activities of ..the associated person.”  The court concluded that “only disputes arising out of business activities of an associated person as an associated person are covered” by the rule and must be arbitrated.  One judge concurred specially, to give further examples of why the rule could not be read the way the trusts advocated.

Finally, in Grand Summit Hotel Condominium United Owners’ Assoc. v. L.B.O. Holding, Inc., 2018 WL 4440370 (N.H. Sept. 18, 2018), the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision that the claims of condo owners against their property manager were not arbitrable.  The parties’ arbitration agreement provided for decision  by an independent public accountant of disputes over “actual costs” — pass-through costs of operation and maintenance — or management fees.  The court “assume[d] without deciding that the provision is an arbitration clause and that the presumption in favor of arbitrability applies.”  Even so, the court found that the disputes provision was narrow and because the owners did not dispute the Actual Costs, but instead sought damages caused by the manager’s misconduct (in failing to engage anyone to winterize the cooling tower), they were not obligated to arbitrate their claims.

Is this the new arbitration resistance??  Some kind of “scope-a-dope,” in which courts that don’t take kindly to arbitration can hold up their hands and say “I accepted that the arbitration agreement was formed, and that it was valid, but under state contract law, I interpret this claim as outside the scope.”  That is a hard type of case to preempt under federal law, especially if it’s done without announcing a “rule” of contract interpretation.

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.”

 

The focus today is recent state appellate court decisions on arbitration. Because there are an awful lot of them, I am going to divide them roughly into those that are pro arbitration, and those that are hostile to arbitration.  This post focuses on the three relatively hostile cases (with the friendly cases coming in a sequel), on issues of scope, delegation clause, and vacatur.

In Keyes v. Dollar General Corp., 2018 WL 1755266 (Miss. April 12, 2018),  the Mississippi Supreme Court wrestled with whether claims of “malicious prosecution” are within the scope of an arbitration agreement.  Just as it did a few months ago, the court concluded those claims are not within the scope of the arbitration agreement.  Even though in Keyes, the employee’s arbitration agreement provided for arbitration of all disputes “arising out of your employment…or termination of employment” and the employee was accused of stealing a gift card, which led to a criminal complaint.  The court noted that there was no evidence the employee “contemplated” this situation and that the employer could have specifically included claims of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, etc. in the arbitration agreement.  [Can you imagine if we all had to list every possible claim for it to be covered by an arbitration agreement?  So.  Many.  Pages.]  On a similar issue, Texas reached the opposite result.

In Citizens of Humanity, LLC v. Applied Underwriters Captive Risk Assurance Co., Inc., 299 Neb. 545 (April 6, 2018), the Nebraska Supreme Court refused to enforce the delegation clause in the parties’ agreement.  [Yes, *that* Citizens of Humanity, of fancy jean fame.]  Just as in a similar 4th Circuit case, the party wanting to avoid arbitration alleged an anti-arbitration insurance statute precluded enforcement of the arbitration agreement (under the dreaded McCarran-Ferguson doctrine, which for a long time I refused to even acknowledge on this blog for fear of getting sucked into the morass).  The party seeking to arbitrate argued that the parties’ delegation clause assigned the issue of the anti-arbitration statute to the arbitrator, and that there had been no specific challenge to the delegation clause as required by Rent-A-Center. The Nebraska Supreme Court found the challenge was sufficiently specific in this case because the amended complaint mentioned the anti-arbitration statute and sought a declaration that the arbitration agreement was invalid, and because the challenger said during its hearing that its challenge included the delegation of arbitrability.  [Well, if you uttered the magic words at oral argument, then I guess that’s good enough…]  The court went on to find the delegation clause invalid and remanded the remaining arbitrability issues to the district court.

[The Third Circuit also found that a plaintiff had asserted a sufficiently specific challenge to a delegation clause in MacDonald v. Cashcall, Inc., 2018 WL 1056942 (Feb. 27, 2018).  But there, the complaint alleged that “any provision requirement that the enforceability of the arbitration procedure must be decided through arbitration is [] illusory and unenforceable.”  And the plaintiff’s brief at least stated that the delegation clause had the same defect as the arbitration provision.]

Last but not least, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decision vacating an arbitration award for violating public policy. In City of Richfield v. Law Enforcement Labor Servs., Inc., 2018 WL 1701916 (Minn. Ct. App. April 9, 2018), the city terminated a police officer following his improper use of force in a traffic stop and failure to self-report that force.  The officer challenged his discharge in arbitration, and the arbitrator found the use of force was not excessive and that the failure to report it was not malicious, and ordered the city to reinstate him.  The city appealed the award.  The district court refused to vacate the award, but the appellate court found vacatur appropriate under the public-policy exception.  The court looked to the officer’s previous failures to report his use of force and found “the interest of the public must be given precedence over the arbitration award.”  The court noted its decision is rare and unusual, but that it did “not take this action lightly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens when state courts disagree with SCOTUS’s interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act?  They resist, and they have a thousand different ways of doing so.  The Mississippi Supreme Court demonstrated one way to resist recently in Pedigo v. Robertson, Rent-A-Center, Inc., 2017 WL 4838243 (Miss. Oct. 26, 2017). (I neglected to mention the state appellate courts as important actors in last week’s post about what we may see now that the CFPB rule is dead.)

In Pedigo, the plaintiff entered into a Rental Purchase Agreement (RPA) from Rent-A-Center.  (Yes.  The same Rent-A-Center of delegation clause fame.)  Within about four months, he stopped making payments.  At that point, Rent-A-Center found out that plaintiff had sold the television to a pawn shop shortly after purchasing it.  Rent-A-Center then filed a complaint with the police, and the plaintiff was arrested and incarcerated.

After the plaintiff was released from jail, he filed a civil action against Rent-A-Center, alleging the police report was false.  Rent-A-Center moved to compel arbitration.  The trial court judge compelled arbitration.

On appeal, the high court found that plaintiff’s claims of malicious prosecution were outside the scope of the parties’ arbitration agreement.  The RPA itself prohibited the sale or pawning of the leased goods.  The arbitration agreement in the RPA stated that covered claims “shall be interpreted as broadly as the law allows and mean[] any dispute or controversy between you and RAC….based on any legal theory…”  The only claims not covered were those for injunctive or declaratory relief, or those seeking less than $5,000 in damages.  However, because “the agreement fails to contemplate that a lessor/signatory might pawn collateral and subsequently be indicted and jailed” the court did not require the plaintiff to arbitrate his claims.

Why do I call this “resistance”?  Because there are many cases saying that as part of the federal policy favoring arbitration, courts presume that claims are within the scope of a valid arbitration agreement.  The coin is weighted towards “heads.”  And here, the agreement explicitly prohibited pawning the TV, and the arbitration clause was about as broad as it could be.  Yet the court refused to compel arbitration.  The implication of this court ruling seems to be that if a specific claim is not enumerated in an arbitration clause in Mississippi (to show it was contemplated), the claim is not arbitrable.  And that just does not fit within the federal precedent.

You know what state is not currently resisting?  Missouri.  The Supreme Court of Missouri faithfully followed the instructions SCOTUS gave in Rent-A-Center, and enforced a delegation clause over the votes of two dissenting justices.  In Pinkerton v. Fahnestock, 2017 WL 4930289 (Mo. Oct. 31, 2017), the Missouri high court found that the parties’ incorporation of the AAA rules was a clear and unequivocal delegation clause.  It also found that the great majority of the plaintiff’s challenges were not specific to the delegation provision (they applied to the arbitration agreement as a whole) and so could not be considered; the only specific challenge was plaintiff’s argument that it is unconscionable to delegate arbitrability to “a person with a direct financial interest in the outcome.”  The court dismissed that out of hand, citing Rent-A-Center.  Because the plaintiff had made no successful challenge to the delegation clause, the Missouri high court enforced it, sending the issue of the arbitration agreement’s validity to the arbitrator.

The highest state court in West Virginia just found that a credit card company did not waive its right to arbitrate, despite initially choosing a court forum and waiting almost five years to raise its right to arbitrate.  That is a somewhat surprising decision from a court that has been repeatedly willing to buck SCOTUS precedent in order to let parties avoid arbitration.

It was the right decision under current precedent though. The parties in Citibank, N.A. v. Perry, __ S.E.2d __, 2016 WL 6677944 (W. Va. Nov. 10, 2016), had an arbitration provision that could be enforced at any time.  It said a party who starts a court proceeding “may elect arbitration with respect to any Claim advanced in that proceeding by any other party.”  It also stated that “[a]t any time you or we may ask an appropriate court to compel arbitration of Claims…unless a trial has begun or a final judgment has been entered.”  And finally, the arbitration provision had a class action waiver and said it could not be waived without a written agreement.

The case started in 2010 with Citibank filing a debt collection action against the credit cardholder. The consumer appeared to acknowledge the debt, and Citibank filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings.  But the trial court never ruled.  In December of 2014, Citibank served discovery and got a scheduling order in place.  In May of 2015, the consumer filed a class counterclaim.  In response, Citibank asked the court to compel individual arbitration of the claims.  The district court found Citibank had waived its right to arbitration.

On appeal, Citibank argued that under the plain terms of its arbitration agreement, it could compel arbitration at any time before trial or judgment, unless the opposing party could show actual prejudice. The court was not willing to base its decision on the language of the agreement, however, citing federal cases that refuse to allow “no waiver” clauses to alter the usual waiver analysis.  Instead, it focused on whether Citibank’s conduct demonstrated that it had intentionally relinquished its right to arbitrate. Critically, the court turned the tables and said that in a situation where the consumer waited 4.5 years to assert a counterclaim, “we will not attribute the lengthy duration of activity…solely to Citibank.”  The court noted that the counterclaim changed the character of the case, and after that happened, Citibank timely filed a motion to compel arbitration.

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In the “Don’t get too cute” category… An exotic dancer just won her right to keep her wage-and-hour claims in court, despite an arbitration agreement in her contract. Why?  Because the club styled her contract as a landlord/tenant arrangement in which she leased the stage.  Because the arbitration clause applied only to disputes arising out of the agreement, and the agreement purported to be a lease, the court refused to find its scope broad enough to cover her FLSA claims. Herzfeld v. 1416 Chancellor, Inc., 2016 WL 6574075 (3d Cir. Nov. 7, 2016).

While regular people count down the days to summer blockbusters that come in the form of high-paid actors fighting aliens or robots, I prefer my summer blockbusters in the form of arbitration opinions that have been months in the making (maybe finally released because the clerks are about to turn over?). Today, I report on three of these arbitration blockbusters, all from state high courts.

Blockbuster 1: New Hampshire Rejects Application of FAA.

In the most ambitious of the three decisions, the New Hampshire Supreme Court found that the FAA’s sections regarding confirming and vacating awards do not apply in state courts.  Finn v. Ballentine Partners, LLC, __ A.3d __, 2016 WL 3268852 (NH June 14, 2016) (an opinion that took five months to produce).  In that case, a company ousted one of its founders, and she instituted an arbitration challenging her termination.  She was awarded about $6.5 million.  After the company engaged in some major restructuring, which resulted in lots of cash, the ousted founder started a new arbitration.  Although the company argued her claims were barred by res judicata, the second arbitration went all the way through hearing and she was awarded another $600,000.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court refused to confirm the award.   Because the FAA allowed no avenue for vacating the award, the court based its decision on a state statute allowing courts to vacate an award for “plain mistake.”  The founder had argued that the state statute was preempted by the FAA.  The court responded that “we conclude that §§ 9-11 of the FAA apply only to arbitration review proceedings commenced in federal court.”  WAIT, WHAT?? (Truly, this stuff is what keeps me blogging.  There is never a dull moment with state courts and arbitration law.)*  The court essentially found that since most of the state court cases that have ended up at SCOTUS were about enforcing arbitration agreements in the first place, enforcing arbitration agreements is the limit of the FAA’s application in state courts.  (“Preemption… is at its apex when parties cannot get to arbitration…  In contrast, state rules . . . without the potential consequence of invalidating an arbitration agreement are not preempted.”)  Having gotten that pesky FAA out of the way, the court easily found that the failure to apply res judicata as the court interprets it was a “plain mistake” and reversible error.

Blockbuster 2: Michigan Allows Law Firm To Compel Arbitration Of Suit Against Its Principals

Michigan’s decision has more interesting facts but less of a jaw-dropping result.   In Altobell v. Hartmann, __ N.W.2d__, 2015 WL 3247615 (Mich. June 13, 2016), a principal in a law firm had gotten the chance to be an assistant football coach at the University of Alabama.  (What attorney has a second act as a football coach?  I imagine him giving his clients half-time type pep talks during trial: “Clear eyes.  Full hearts.  Can’t lose!”)   He got the impression that his firm would allow him to keep his ownership interest for a year, but the firm audibled and declared the coach had withdrawn from the partnership.  No law firm money was coming his way.

The coach then sued seven principals of the law firm in court, and the firm moved to compel arbitration.  Although the lower courts had found that naming individual defendants was sufficient to avoid his arbitration agreement with the firm, the Michigan Supreme Court sided with common sense. The arbitration agreement called for binding arbitration of any dispute “between the Firm…and any current or former Principal.”  The court found it “must consider the concept of agency” in interpreting whether the firm was meant to include the individuals who makes its decisions.  Therefore, the court found claims against the individual defendants were arbitrable, and the coach’s claims were also within the scope of the arbitration agreement.

Blockbuster 3: Kentucky Finds CPA Determination Is Not “Arbitration”

Kentucky waded into the muddy issue of defining arbitration in The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Inc. v. Dunaway, __ S.W.3d__, 2016 WL 3371085 (Ky. June 16, 2016).  In that case, a theater fired its director but agreed to pay his bonus for 2013.  The agreement noted that “the parties agree to abide by the determination of the … certified public accountants…in case of a dispute as to the true amount of the net profits, and each party agrees to accept such determination as final.”  After the CPAs concluded the director was entitled to no bonus, the director filed suit.  A year later, the theater filed for summary judgment, arguing the CPA determination was a binding arbitration award.  The district court denied the motion and the intermediate appellate court agreed.

The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed for two reasons. First, it found even if the language was binding, it related only to “net profits” not to the director’s bonus.  But more interestingly, it rejected the concept that this was an arbitration clause, as it “makes no express reference to arbitration”, did not allow for “fundamental components of due process” like presenting evidence and cross-examining witnesses, and the agreement had a general venue provision selecting Kentucky state court.

Speaking of defining arbitration, watch for an upcoming post about how courts around the country are trying to put some parameters on what is and is not an arbitration. 

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*Would love to hear from any academic types who have looked into this argument. What about these statements from SCOTUS, not limited to Sections 2-4 of the FAA??

  • “State and federal courts must enforce the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., with respect to all arbitration agreements covered by that statute.” Marmet Health Care Ctr., Inc. v. Brown, 132 S. Ct. 1201, 1202, 182 L. Ed. 2d 42 (2012).
  • “It is well settled that ‘the substantive law the Act created [is] applicable in state and federal courts.’” Nitro-Lift Technologies, LLC v. Howard, 133 S.Ct. 500, 503 (2012).

Three federal appellate courts recently affirmed lower courts’ refusal to compel arbitration.  These cases show that the federal policy favoring arbitration is not absolute – the parties must have agreed to arbitrate the claims at issue and the defendant cannot have waived its right to arbitrate by engaging in significant discovery and motion practice.

In Lloyd v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., __ F.3d __, 2015 WL 3937978 (2d Cir. June 29, 2015), the issue was whether putative class and collective actions by former financial advisors could proceed in court.  The employment agreements call for arbitration of “any claim or controversy … required to be arbitrated by the FINRA Rules … no claims shall be arbitrated on a  … collective or class-wide basis.”  The current FINRA Rules prohibit arbitration of any class or collective claims.  The employer moved to compel arbitration and the district court denied the motion, finding that plaintiffs’ class and collective action claims fall outside the scope of the arbitration clause.  The Second Circuit affirmed.  It engaged in a grammatical analysis of the arbitration clause (rejecting the employer’s argument about the “rule of the last antecedent”) and found that the phrase “required to be arbitrated by the FINRA Rules” modifies “claim or controversy.”  Therefore, because the current FINRA Rules did not require arbitration of class or collective actions, the claims could proceed in federal court.

In another case about whether the parties really intended to arbitrate their claims, the Eighth Circuit found that the plaintiff never accepted the terms of the contract containing the arbitration agreement, despite starting to perform under that contract.  LoRoad, LLC v. Global Expedition Vehicles, LLC, __ F.3d __, 2015 WL 3449847 (8th Cir. June 1, 2015).  The plaintiff and defendant had exchanged multiple revisions of the contract, until finally the defendant sent a version that plaintiff appeared to accept by wiring a deposit on the funds due under the contract and faxing the contract back with the signature of an (unauthorized) principal and “minor handwriting notations and changes.”  Later, however, plaintiff asserted “unfinished business” and threatened to rescind the contract, and the defendant suggested revising the contract.  Applying UCC and Missouri law, the Eighth Circuit found the plaintiff never accepted the contract.  Furthermore, even though every version of the agreement contained the same arbitration provision, the Eighth Circuit found “there was an enforceable agreement to arbitrate if, and only if, [plaintiff] proved there was a final, enforceable [contract].”  (Plaintiff had filed suit to compel arbitration.)

Finally, in a class action antitrust case, In re Cox Enterprises, Inc. Settop Cable Television Box Antitrust Litig., ___ F.3d __, 2015 WL 3875726 (10th Cir. June 24, 2015), the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration was denied because the court found the defendant waived its right to compel.  The appellate court found that the defendant waived its right by waiting until two years into the litigation – after moving to dismiss the claim, engaging in “extensive pretrial discovery,” and opposing class certification.  In particular, the district court was offended that the defendant’s failure to inform the court of the arbitration agreement until after class certification had wasted significant court resources and suggested an attempt at “multiple bites at the apple” and to “play heads I win, tails you lose.”

The Fifth Circuit un-vacated an arbitration award last week, holding the district court had wrongly concluded that the court was the proper decision-maker on contract formation.  Although courts are presumptively authorized to decide whether an arbitration agreement exists, the Fifth Circuit found the parties altered that presumption by “submitting, briefing, and generally disputing that issue throughout the arbitration proceedings.”  OMG, L.P. v. Heritage Auctions, Inc.,  2015 WL 2151779 (5th Cir. May 8, 2015).  [Or, as I like to think of the case: “OMG!  I gave arb TMI and lost my appeal.  WTF”]

The dispute related to OMG’s claim that it was owed more commissions than the auction house had paid it for firearm sales.  The parties disputed how to interpret the term “merchandise” in the contract. Heritage demanded arbitration.  The two relevant agreements between OMG and Heritage provided for binding arbitration of “any dispute” “in any way related” to the agreements.  In arbitration, the auction house argued there was no meeting of the minds regarding the meaning of “merchandise,” so the contract was unenforceable.  The arbitrator agreed and rescinded the contract.

OMG asked the federal district court to vacate the arbitration award, arguing that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by ruling on the issue of contract formation.  The district court agreed, finding “a court was the proper decision-maker as to contract formation issues in this case, not the arbitrator.”

The Fifth Circuit reversed.  Critically, it found that “by their actions, the parties may agree to arbitrate disputes that they were not otherwise contractually bound to arbitrate.”  It cited Fifth Circuit precedent from 1980 (Piggly Wiggly, I am not kidding with the names here) and from 1994 (Executone Info. Sys.) to support that proposition.  Because the auction house had disputed whether there had been a meeting of the minds throughout the arbitration, and OMG “never contested the arbitrator’s authority to resolve” that issue, “the parties agreed to arbitrate contract formation.”  The court found that OMG could have refused to arbitrate the formation issue.  But it could not “simply [] wait until it receives a decision with which it disagrees before challenging the arbitrator’s authority.”

I find the analysis here very interesting.  The Fifth Circuit chose not to base the arbitrator’s authority to rescind the contract in the parties’ agreement to arbitrate any dispute, or any other language in the (now rescinded) agreement.  Instead, it looked to the parties’ conduct to authorize the award.  And in describing that conduct, it did not use a concept like waiver (OMG could have waived its right to argue the arbitrator exceeded his power by not raising that in the arbitration), but instead described the conduct as forming a separate agreement to arbitrate.  In any case, the public policy behind the decision is very clear and reminds me of the “invited error” doctrine: parties cannot ask the arbitrator to exercise power, or accede to that exercise of power, and later complain that the arbitrator exercised that power.

This is an important issue for advocates in arbitration.  Every issue that is presented to the arbitrator — by either party– should be carefully analyzed to determine whether it is validly within the scope of the parties’ arbitration agreement.  If an issue is outside the scope, and the party wants to preserve an objection to its submission to the arbitrator, it must “forcefully” object (see First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995)).  Otherwise, the party will be deemed to have agreed to arbitrate the issue, and the arbitrator’s decision will be subject to the highly deferential review of the Federal Arbitration Act.

A new case from the Sixth Circuit addresses whether accountants who are resolving a dispute about payments made under an agreement can also make legal determinations about the same agreement. In a 2-1 decision, the Sixth Circuit held that the scope of the dispute clause is broad enough to allow the accountants to resolve contract interpretation issues, as long as they are “relatively simple” and “closely related to accounting.” Shy v. Navistar Int’l Corp., __ F.3d__, 2015 WL 1383106 (6th Cir. March 27, 2015).

In Shy, Navistar was obligated to make annual contributions to a trust for its retired employees. The amount of the contribution was determined by a formula. If the committee managing the trust disputed the “information or calculation” provided by Navistar to support its contribution, and the parties could not resolve the dispute, the agreement provided that an accounting firm would resolve the dispute with a final and binding decision.

In this instance, the committee disputed how Navistar classified revenue when it was applying the formula. (The dissent states that “the gravamen of the [committee’s] allegations is that Navistar is engaging in a bad faith scheme to negate its substantive contractual duty to contribute a portion of its profits to fund the benefits of its retirees.”) The committee filed suit in federal court over those issues. Navistar responded by moving to compel arbitration, and the district court denied the motion. It found the claims fell within the scope of the arbitration clause, but that Navistar had waived its right to arbitrate.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed. It found that the claims were arbitrable, and that Navistar had not waived its right to arbitrate.

Why am I writing about accountants determining the application of a financial formula on an arbitration blog? Because contract clauses that allow an appraisal process to determine a value, or an accountant to resolve a financial dispute, are generally deemed arbitration clauses under federal law, even when no derivative of the word “arbitration” appears in the clause. As long as there is an independent adjudicator, substantive standards (like a contract) that apply, an opportunity for both sides to present their case, and a final decision, the process is deemed an arbitration that falls within the FAA.

And, in this decision, the Sixth Circuit found that the bean counters who determine how the formula applies were not limited to just counting beans. Because the contract clause called for the accountants to resolve disputes over “information or calculation,” the court held the language was broad enough to also encompass how Navistar categorized the information, and even “operational practices of Navistar” if those were closely tied to the information provided to the committee. The court did not exclude questions of contract interpretation from the scope of the arbitration, finding no indication the parties intended that limitation and finding the contract disputes at issue were “relatively simple” and “closely related to accounting.”

The dissent complained that the majority took the presumption in favor of arbitration too far. It accused the majority’s holding – that the accountants could determine legal questions that are closely connected to the financial questions –of having “no limiting principle.” “If applied as a general rule, any form of misconduct or bad faith dealing, or any fundamental change in the nature of the relevant business or transaction, could be characterized as an informational dispute…”

I find this an interesting case because many industries commonly use dispute mechanisms in which a specialist of some type is called on to resolve a specific type of dispute. (A panel of doctors determine whether you qualify for disability insurance, for example, or a panel of real estate appraisers determine the value of a property.) However, drafters of these clauses should take note that these clauses will be deemed arbitration clauses, and then the broad presumption of arbitrability will apply to the scope of those clauses. So, if you don’t want your bean counter to have the power to determine whether your beans are legal, these clauses must be written with carefully demarcated boundaries.