Three state supreme courts tackled arbitration law in recent weeks: Alabama, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. Rhode Island reversed a construction arbitration award because it disagreed with the arbitrator’s analysis. North Carolina found that an arbitration agreement in a doctor-patient setting was unenforceable as a breach of the doctor’s fiduciary duty. And Alabama strictly enforced an arbitral venue, even though that precluded class action.
Continuing its streak of hewing closely to the lead of federal courts on arbitration, the Supreme Court of Alabama held that plaintiffs have to arbitrate with the Better Business Bureau, even though the BBB does not conduct class action arbitration proceedings. University Toyota & University Chevrolet Buick GMC v. Hardeman, _ So. 3d __, 2017 WL 382651 (Ala. Jan. 27, 2017). The plaintiffs were a putative class of customers harmed by two car dealerships’ decision to stop honoring their earlier agreement to provide free oil changes. The arbitration clause between the dealerships and purchasers called for arbitration of all disputes pursuant to the FAA, and said “either party may demand arbitration by filing with the Better Business Bureau.” When the plaintiffs filed their demand, the BBB responded that it did not conduct class arbitrations. The plaintiffs then withdrew their demand and filed in court, asking either to keep their fight in court or go to a forum that allowed class arbitration. The trial court sent the plaintiffs to the AAA to decide whether class actions were available. On appeal, the supreme court reversed in a 7-1 decision. The majority quoted heavily from SCOTUS decisions stating that arbitration agreements should be enforced according to their terms, and found that the BBB forum was an integral part of the arbitration agreement that must be given effect. The lone dissenter argued that, because the availability of class arbitration was for the arbitrator, it should be decided by a forum that at least retains that option.
Without any consideration of the Federal Arbitration Act, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island vacated an arbitration award. Nappa Construction Management, LLC v. Flynn, __ A.3d __, 2017 WL 281812 (R.I. Jan. 23, 2017). (Maybe an allergy to the FAA is contagious… remember nearby New Hampshire last year?) In a dispute between the owners of a automobile repair facility and the construction company that was hired to build it, the arbitrator issued an award that analyzed the parties’ contract and found the construction company was owed money. The trial court refused to vacate the award, finding the arbitrator grounded his analysis in the contract and did not manifestly disregard the law. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island cited only cases from its own court, including labor cases, and found that the arbitrator had exceeded his authority (and the award failed to draw its essence from the agreement) by finding that the owners had effectively terminated the contract, when there was no evidence that the owners actually terminated the contract. The court also accused the award of reaching an “irrational result.” Two justices dissented, noting the “exceptionally deferential standard of review” for arbitration awards. They did not, however, cite to the line from Sutter, as I would have, that even “grave error” by an arbitrator is not sufficient to vacate an award if the arbitrator in fact analyzed the contract. (Maybe no one argued the FAA applied? A commercial construction contract would almost certainly involve interstate commerce…)
Finally, the Supreme Court of North Carolina refused to enforce the arbitration agreement between a doctor and patient, finding that the agreement “was obtained as a result of defendants’ breach of fiduciary duty that they owed to” the patient. King v. Bryant, __ S.E.2d __, 2017 WL 382910 (N.C. Jan. 27, 2017). The patient had brought a medical malpractice action against his surgeon, and the surgeon tried to enforce the arbitration agreement between them. The arbitration agreement called for application of the FAA and arbitration under health care procedures of the AAA.
The N.C. trial court refused to compel arbitration, finding the agreement was only an “agreement to agree,” and started off a crazy game of appeals court-district court ping pong involving this case. The court of appeals reversed and remanded. On second thought, the trial court refused to enforce the agreement because the surgeon had a fiduciary duty to disclose the arbitration agreement to his patient as a material term, and because he did not it was unenforceable. The court of appeals affirmed, noting the application of the FAA, but finding the agreement unconscionable. The supreme court then remanded to the trial court for further findings of fact regarding the existence of a physician-patient relationship when the agreement was signed, and the trial court complied. Finally, the case returned to the supreme court, which held that the doctor owed a fiduciary duty to the patient and breached it “by failing to make full disclosure of the nature and import of the arbitration agreement to him at or before the time that it was presented for his signature.” Recognizing the possibility of an argument that its holding is preempted by the FAA, the court noted “we would have reached the same result on these facts with respect to any agreement that substantially affected [the patient’s] substantive legal rights.” However, the opinion cites no N.C. cases to support that statement, which may be fatal under the DirecTV analysis. Two justices wrote separate dissents, based largely on FAA preemption. (“This jiggery-pokery is precisely the type of impermissble ‘rationalization’ admonished by the United States Supreme Court. Such a tortured attempt to obviate the FAA fails.”)
What is the take away here? It is that there is still a huge amount of variation in how a given arbitration dispute will be handled, depending on what court hears the dispute. And the preemption rules set out in Concepcion and DirecTV are either not well understood, or are being intentionally avoided.