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.”

Sometimes current events provide an occasion perfect storm to educate about arbitration basics. This is one of those occasions.

Here are questions that friends and colleagues  storming mad people have asked me in the past day or so, with my best answers:

  • Does an arbitration agreement have to be signed by both parties to be enforceable (i.e. ride out the storm)?
    • The Federal Arbitration Act provides that an arbitration agreement must be “written,” but it does not also say it must be signed by all parties.  Whether a signature is required, along with all answers about the enforceability of arbitration agreements, depends on state contract law. In general, a contract requires an offer, acceptance, and consideration. And in most states, “acceptance” of an offer can take many forms. (See, for example,  this case (about Macy’s) finding a valid agreement without one party’s signature , but these cases finding no valid agreement where a signature was missing.)
  • Do arbitrators have authority to issue temporary or ex parte injunctions?
    • It depends. Arbitrators derive their authority from the parties’ arbitration agreement. If that arbitration agreement expressly grants the power to issue emergency, temporary, or ex parte injunctions, or if the arbitration agreement incorporates rules of an administrator (like the AAA) and those rules grant the power to issue those types of injunctions, then the arbitrator has power to enjoin the parties on an emergency or temporary basis (but only the parties, otherwise non-parties will kick up a storm and vacate the award).
  • How are injunctions from arbitrators enforced?
    • Within the arbitration proceeding, a party may seek sanctions from the arbitrator if the arbitrator’s temporary injunction is violated. Those sanctions can include anything authorized by the applicable rules. (Remember in this case, when the sanction was over $600 million?  Oh, that created a sh*tstorm.) Outside the arbitration proceeding, the party wanting to enforce the injunction (whether temporary or permanent) must first obtain a final arbitration award, and then have that award confirmed in federal court. (Remember, only “final” awards can be confirmed under the Federal Arbitration Act.) After that final award is confirmed in court, it is a judgment that can be enforced like any other court judgment.
    • However, when the winning party asks a court to confirm an award, the losing party often moves to vacate the arbitration award.  And the absence of a valid arbitration agreement is a solid basis to vacate the award.  For example, the Revised Uniform Arbitration Act authorizes vacatur if: “there was no agreement to arbitrate, unless the person participated in
      the arbitration proceeding without raising the objection.”

**Thanks for all the nudges about writing this post.  You convinced me that my desire to offer context to the news should trump my desire to storm off and pretend it is not happening.

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.

The Fourth Circuit issued an opinion yesterday in an under-developed area of arbitration law: when are awards “mutual, final, and definite”?  This is an important issue because under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, arbitration awards can be vacated if they don’t meet the standard of “mutual, final and, definite.”

In Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sprint Communications Co., 2018 WL 1004805 (4th Cir. Feb. 22, 2018), the parties’ lease agreement called for a three-person appraisal panel to establish the price for the renewal period.  Each party selected their own appraiser, and those two appraisers chose a third appraiser.  (Let’s just call him the Chair.)  In December of 2014, the Chair issued a “majority decision,” setting a payment amount and identifying two critical assumptions underlying that payment amount.  The majority decision clarified that  “[i]f either of these extraordinary assumptions are found to not be true, [the Chair] … reserves the right to withdraw his assent.”   A panel of AAA arbitrators then determined the Majority Decision was final and binding.

Norfolk Southern then moved to confirm the Majority Decision and the district court granted the motion.  The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding the Majority Decision was not “final”.  It cited cases for the proposition that “[a]n award is not ‘final’ under the FAA if it fails to resolve an issue presented by the parties to the arbitrators.”  The court focused on the Chair’s reservation of his right to withdraw his assent as the key aspect of the Majority Decision that made it lack finality.  It wrote: the Chair “did not merely base his assent on certain assumptions, but rather reserved the right to withdraw his assent if his assumptions proved to be incorrect. This outcome cannot be squared with any conception of ‘finality.'”

The Fourth Circuit remanded to the district court with instructions to vacate the award, and told the parties to go back to arbitration for “an arbitration award that is “final” and otherwise complies with the FAA and this opinion.”

This is an important case for arbitrators to read in order to be sure they issue awards that are final and can be confirmed.

 

Two cases recently fit in one of my favorite categories: those awards that get “un-vacated.”  These cases went through arbitration, had that arbitration award vacated by a district court, only to have the award later resurrected by an appellate court.  In today’s edition, the whiplash happens in both state and federal court.

In Caffey v. Lees, 2018 WL 327260 (R.I. Jan. 9, 2018), Lees was the winner after bringing a personal injury case in arbitration. He was awarded nearly $200,000.  Caffey moved to vacate the award, arguing every possible basis under the Rhode Island arbitration statute.  The trial court granted the motion to vacate, based on the initial failure of Lees’ counsel to disclose a document from its expert.  Not just any document, of course, but an early assessment that contradicted the expert’s eventual opinion about causation.  The trial court found that omission meant the award was procured by “undue means.”

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island noted it had not addressed “undue means” since 1858.  It looked to more recent definitions from federal circuit courts of the phrase — noting that proving undue means involves proving “nefarious intent or bad faith” or “immoral” conduct.   It found that standard was not met in this case, since the losing party had the critical document well before it submitted its final brief to the arbitrator.  Indeed, the issue of the untimely disclosure was placed before the arbitrator, and the expert explained the discrepancy.  Because the expert had a plausible explanation, the court could not agree that Lees’ counsel obtained the award through underhanded or conniving means.  The Supreme Court reinstated the award.

A case in the Ninth Circuit followed the same path.  In Sanchez v. Elizondo, 2018 WL 297352 (9th Cir. Jan. 5, 2018), an investor won a $75,000 award in a FINRA arbitration.  The district court granted the broker’s motion to vacate based on an argument that the arbitrator exceeded his powers.  In particular, the arbitrator allowed the arbitration to proceed with a single arbitrator, even after the claimant had submitted a pre-hearing brief increasing its damage request to just over the FINRA line that requires a three-arbitrator panel.  (The FINRA rules provide that claims over $100,000 must be heard by three arbitrators.  The claimant had initially requested exactly $100,000, so was assigned the single arbitrator, but then sought $125,000 in the pre-hearing brief, without amending the claim.)

The Ninth Circuit reinstated the award.  After first establishing that it had appellate jurisdiction, it considered the arbitrator’s powers.  Importantly, the court affirmed that arbitrators have discretion on matters of substance as well as matters of procedure.  In this case, FINRA rules explicitly gave the arbitrator power to interpret the FINRA Code and rules. Furthermore, the arbitrator asked the parties to address the issue of the increased damage amount, considered their arguments, and interpreted the rule to reference the amount initially claimed in the demand, instead of any amount later sought in the arbitration.  Because the arbitrator had power to interpret the rule and did so, the court found he did not exceed his powers.

These don’t seem like hard cases to me.  Given the standard for vacating awards, these arbitration awards should have been straightforward to confirm.  The fact that they weren’t suggests either that the speed of development under the FAA is difficult for advocates and judges to keep up with, or that there may be some judicial hostility toward arbitration coloring the application of the standard for vacatur.

What could be a better subject for a Black Friday weekend post than the Cabbage Patch Kids??!  Especially if you are old enough to remember the 1980s…  Whether you loved or hated the smushed-face dolls, the point of this post is that the 11th Circuit confirmed an arbitration award in their favor, showing significant deference to the arbitrator.  Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. v. Jakks Pacific, Inc., 2017 WL 5508498 (11th Cir. Nov. 17, 2017).

The dispute was between the company that owns the Cabbage Patch Kids (CPK) brand and a company to which it licensed the intellectual property during 2012-2014 (the licensee).  As the end of the license agreement was approaching, CPK selected a new company to receive the license in 2015, and let them get started creating the new line of toys, so that the new line could launch right away in 2015.  The licensee claimed that was a breach of the agreement and started an arbitration.

The arbitrator concluded that CPK had not breached the agreement and ordered that the licensee had to repay CPK over a million dollars in unpaid royalties.  The licensee moved to vacate the award.  Curiously, it made arguments under both the Georgia Arbitration Code and the FAA, and the 11th Circuit considered them all.  [Maybe showing that New Hampshire was onto something in declaring the FAA does not preempt state law on vacatur?]

Under the Georgia Code, the licensee argued the arbitrator had manifestly disregarded the law by ignoring the parol evidence rule (and accepting extrinsic evidence regarding the agreement).  [Manifest disregard is a statutory basis for vacatur under the Georgia act, unlike the federal act.]  The court found there was no concrete evidence that the arbitrator purposely disregarded the law, which is the standard.  Instead, the transcript and award showed the arbitrator had understood Georgia law as instructing that the purpose of contract interpretation is to effectuate the parties’ intent, and that’s what he tried to do in reviewing the extrinsic evidence.  So, even “assuming the arbitrator incorrectly applied the parol evidence rule,” the court found he “simply made a mistake.”  That does not rise to the level of manifest disregard.

Under the FAA, the licensee separately argued that the arbitrator had exceeded his powers.  After quoting the standard from Sutter, the court quickly concluded that because the arbitrator did interpret the parties’ contract, it does not matter “whether he got its meaning right or wrong,” the award must be confirmed.

In most circumstances, the Federal Arbitration Act requires that the losing party move to vacate an arbitration award within three months.  However, the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that the three-month timeline can be tolled, especially for something as significant as the chair lying about being a licensed attorney.

In Move, Inc. v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., 2016 WL 6543522 (9th Cir. Nov. 4, 2016), Move started a FINRA arbitration against Citigroup, alleging the mismanagement of $131 million.  Move expressed its strong desire to have an experienced attorney as chair, given the complexity of the claims.  So, it gave top ranking to “James H. Frank,” who certified to FINRA that he had a law degree and was licensed in three states.  Mr. Frank then served as the chair of the three person panel, signing a unanimous award denying Move’s claims in December of 2009.

However, the person who served as chair had lied about his qualifications and was not even a licensed attorney.  (He was impersonating a retired California attorney.)  Move discovered that fact in 2014.  (By reading The AmLaw Litigation Daily, which should now use this in its subscription sales pitches.)  Move then filed a motion to vacate the arbitration award.

The district court denied the motion, but the Ninth Circuit reversed.  First, it held “that the FAA is subject to equitable tolling.”  It appears to be the first federal appellate court to reach that result, with the Fifth Circuit having held the opposite in an unpublished case in 1993.  Although part of the lure of arbitration is its finality, the court noted “the general pro-arbitration policy relies on the assumption that the forum is fair, and therefore cannot justify special deference to arbitration outcomes in the face of a colorable claim that the forum was unfair in a particular case.” (Citing the 6th Circuit.)

Having concluded that it could address the substance of the vacatur motion, the court then found that the false information about the chairperson’s professional qualifications  constituted “misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced” and therefore the award should be vacated under Section 10(a)(3).  Because Move made clear in the selection process that having an attorney as chair was critical, and the chair was “an impostor,” the parties’ contractual rights to arbitrate before a panel of three qualified FINRA arbitrators was prejudiced and Move “was deprived of a fundamentally fair hearing.”  The court was not swayed by arguments that the other two members of the panel had voted for the award as well, noting that “there is simply no way to determine” whether the chair influenced the other panelists.

Although I trust that it is a very unusual case for arbitrators to lie about their qualifications, it may be that their disclosure forms list lesser inaccuracies.  What if it was simply that the chair had let his licensure lapse in one of the states?  What lessons does this case offer for lesser types of inaccuracies?  For advocates, it suggests it is useful to make a clear record of what arbitrator qualifications are important during the selection process, so that if there is a problem you can show prejudice.  For arbitrators, it suggests you must be exceedingly careful in the accuracy of the bio you provide.  And for arbitration administrators, like JAMS, AAA and FINRA, it shows that having a system for double-checking arbitrator qualifications is very important.  It is part of the service you are providing the parties.

In an atmosphere in which a federal judge has blocked the CMS rule precluding arbitration in nursing home agreements, and we have a president-elect who seems likely to roll back the other agency regulations of arbitration, we may see courts policing the fundamental fairness of arbitration proceedings more often.  It will be one way to address the public sentiment that arbitration is unfair and stacked in favor of large companies (see this recent editorial by Gretchen Carlson).

While I was busy blogging out listicles and “think pieces” last month, my stack of unread arbitration cases grew exponentially.  August was apparently a very busy month for publishing arbitration opinions.  Maybe most surprisingly, the federal appellate courts vacated three arbitration awards in recent weeks.  So I will start there, and end with two headline-worthy awards that got confirmed.

First, in Bankers Life & Cas. Ins. Co. v. CBRE, Inc., __ F3d __, 2016 WL 4056400 (7th Cir. July 29, 2016), the Seventh Circuit vacated an arbitration award after finding the panel of arbitrators “exceeded its authority.”  The panel had concluded that a real estate broker did not violate its listing agreement with a client when the broker provided an inaccurate cost-benefit analysis to the client.  The panel said that because the cost-benefit analysis had a disclaimer on it, the broker was not responsible.  The district court had confirmed the award.  Writing for the Seventh Circuit, Judge Posner found that because the panel was only authorized to interpret the contract, not the cost-benefit analysis, “[t]he panel’s reliance on the disclaimer in the CBAs was … unjustified.”  One bit of helpful context here is that the court found the Illinois Uniform Arbitration Act applied.  I don’t think this result would fly under the FAA or Sutter .

Second, in Star Ins. Co. v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, 2016 WL 4394563 (6th Cir. Aug. 18, 2016), the Sixth Circuit vacated an arbitration award pursuant to the arbitration act in Michigan.  Although the district court had confirmed the award, the appellate court reversed due to one arbitrator’s ex parte communications with the party who selected that arbitrator.  That communication violated the parties’ agreement to arbitrate as set forth in the scheduling orders.

Third, although not exactly a vacatur, in Linde Health Care Staffing, Inc. v. Claiborne County Hospital, __ So.3d __, 2016 WL 4245435 (Miss. Aug. 11, 2016), the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to recognize a Missouri judgment based on an arbitration award.  It found the losing party was not a party to the arbitration agreement.  Intriguingly, the winning party claimed that the three months for vacating the award had already passed, so the judgment could not be set aside.  The court refused to apply the FAA, however, asking “How can the Hospital be bound by the FAA’s procedural rules if it never entered a contract with an arbitration clause?  The simple answer is it cannot.”

On the other hand, two very interesting arbitration cases were confirmed.

In one, a famous football player had the arbitration award against him un-vacated.  The district court around the corner from my office had found Adrian Peterson was not fairly on notice of the potential penalty against him.  The Eighth Circuit reversed, concluding:

As applied to Peterson’s case, therefore, the arbitrator thought the terms of the Agreement, the law of the shop, and the Personal Conduct Policy gave the Commissioner discretion to impose a six-game suspension and fine if he concluded that shorter suspensions in prior cases had been inadequate.  The arbitrator’s decision on this point was grounded in a construction and application of the terms of the Agreement and a specific arbitral precedent.  It is therefore not subject to second-guessing by the courts.

Nat’l Football League Players Assoc. v. Nat’l Football League, __ F.3d__, 2016 WL 4136958 (8th Cir. Aug 4, 2016).

Another fun case confirming an arbitration award involved a significant award for a Mexican subsidiary of KBR and quite the international legal dispute.  Corporacion Mexicana de Mantenimiento Integral v. Pemex-Exploracion y Produccion, __F.3d__, 2016 WL 4087215 (2d Cir. Aug. 2, 2016).  The losing party in that arbitration happened to be an oil and gas company “acting on behalf of the Mexican government.”  Three years into the arbitration proceeding, the Mexican Congress vested exclusive jurisdiction for disputes over public contracts in its Tax & Administrative Court.  And nearly five years into the arbitration proceeding, the Mexican Congress “ended arbitration” for the claims.  After KBR’s subsidiary won big, it confirmed the award in SDNY.  But a court in Mexico ordered that the award be annulled.  The Second Circuit was having none of that.  It found the district court was right to confirm the award “notwithstanding invalidation of the award in the Mexican courts,” due to four “powerful considerations” including waiver of sovereign immunity, the “repugnancy of retroactive legislation that disrupts contractual expectation,” the need for legal claims to have a forum, and the “prohibition against government expropriation without compensation.”

What can we take away from these decisions?  Maybe that losing parties in arbitration have a better chance of vacating an award under state arbitration acts, that the 8th Circuit is not sympathetic to wealthy football players, and the Second Circuit will not allow a foreign government to legislate its way out of an arbitration award.

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. 

________

*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).

Finding that some of its previous pronouncements were leading district court judges astray, the Ninth Circuit clarified its precedent regarding the scope of review of labor arbitration awards. “We conclude that it is time for us to retire the use of ‘plausibility’ as a term to describe the courts’ role in reviewing labor arbitration awards.” Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters v. Drywall Dynamics, Inc., 2016 WL 2909241 (9th Cir. May 19, 2016).

In Drywall Dynamics, the district court had vacated the arbitration award for two reasons.  It found the arbitration panel’s interpretation of the labor contracts was not “plausible”, and it found the award violated a clear public policy.  The Ninth Circuit un-vacated the arbitration award, and took the occasion to clarify the limited bases for vacating labor arbitration awards.

First, the court tackled its precedent.  Although there are “a long line of” cases that required an arbitrator’s decision to be based on a “plausible interpretation of the contract,” the court found that was “in sharp contrast to the judicial ‘hands off’ approach long required in labor arbitration cases.” Therefore, the court took the opportunity to make clear that the only relevant inquiry on the merits of the award is whether “the arbitrator is even arguably construing or applying the contract and acting within the scope of his authority.”

With respect to the public policy exception, the court noted that is also narrow. When there are “countervailing policy considerations,” it is not appropriate to vacate an arbitrator’s decision on public policy grounds.

In this case, the court found the panel did construe and apply the contract, and that there were competing policy considerations, so the award must be affirmed.

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The Ninth Circuit is not the only appellate court affirming arbitration awards (and clarifying bases for vacatur). The Supreme Court of Oregon affirmed an arbitration award last month, over an objection that the arbitrator did not have authority to grant the awarded remedies. Couch Investments, LLC v. Peverieri, 2016 WL 1593701 (Or. Apr. 21, 2016).  And last week the Supreme Court of Texas affirmed an arbitration award in a trust dispute.  In its opinion, Texas’s highest court held that the bases for vacatur set forth in the Texas  General Arbitration Act are exclusive.  “[A] party may avoid confirmation only by demonstrating a ground expressly listed in” that statute. Hoskins v. Colonel Clifton Hoskins, 2016 WL 2993929 (Tex. May 20, 2016).  (Read more at Disputing.)