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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

__________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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