When an agreement to arbitrate contains a clear and unmistakable “delegation” provision, gateway questions of arbitrability are for the arbitrator to decide. See, e.g., Kubala v. Supreme Prod. Servs., 830 F.3d 199, 201-02 (5th Cir. 2016), citing First Options of Chi., Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 942 (1995); Rent-A-Ctr., W., Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63 (2010). But a determination of the delegation issue is not always obvious, and it is sometimes presented to an arbitrator, rather than to a court, in the first instance. In that case, a party challenging arbitrability may feel some trepidation about submitting its challenge to the very arbitrator who could ultimately be deciding the merits of the case. And another, possibly surprising, concern should be the risk that making such a challenge too vigorously in the arbitration proceeding will foreclose a fulsome judicial review of the arbitrator’s ruling on the scope of his or her own authority.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “class arbitration” may be permitted if an arbitration agreement authorizes it, Stolt-Nielsen v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 684 (2010), and that state contract law governs the interpretation of the parties’ arbitration agreement. A proposal: that an agreement to permit class arbitration must be “clear and unmistakable” to be enforceable.
Published in Law360 (June 22, 2018)
“Gateway” arbitration issues, including the validity, enforceability, and scope of an arbitration agreement, are presumptively to be decided by a court, rather than by an arbitrator. However, such gateway issues may be “delegated” to an arbitrator, e.g., AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U.S. 643, 106 S.Ct. 1415 (1986), if the pertinent arbitration agreement clearly and unmistakably manifests the parties’ intention to do so, First Options of Chicago v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 115 S.Ct. 1920 (1985); Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 123 S.Ct. 588 (2002); Greentree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444, 123 S.Ct. 2402 (2003). But what if the arbitration agreement is in doubt — could such a purported delegation be enforced if one of the concerned parties did not execute the arbitration agreement in question? Spoiler alert: arguably not.
Published in Bloomberg Law (June 14, 2018)
The majority of a divided (5-4) SCOTUS recently held that a waiver of “class arbitration” in agreed terms of employment is indeed enforceable. In doing so, the Court advanced the legal analysis of “class arbitration” that was begun several years ago by Justice Antonin Scalia, confirmed that arbitration is fundamentally a creature of contract, and concluded, among other things, that the NLRA was not in conflict with and did not override or displace the FAA.
Lest we forget, many are the arbitrations that are subject to state arbitration law rather than the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). And one should never underestimate the differences between those regimes. For example, under the FAA, the grounds for vacatur of an award are few and narrowly construed. See FAA §10(a), (9 U.S.C. §10(a)). Accordingly, federal court doctrine permitting vacatur of an award on public policy grounds affords only a very narrow opening, including in cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. State law may be less limiting, however, concerning the significance of public policy in such cases.
Arbitration is a creature of contract, and an arbitrator’s powers are in effect defined by the parties’ arbitration agreement. Paradoxically, although an arbitration agreement can be written (double-spaced) on one side of a cocktail napkin, in some cases it may grant greater authority to an arbitrator than a judge has.
Published in Law 360 (May 22, 2018)
The cost of arbitration, including attorneys’ fees, can be substantial, commensurate with the matters in dispute. Your desire to settle a dispute that is going to arbitration is often as or more substantial. But sometimes your adversary is not willing to settle at your very rational number. What next — increase your settlement offer or reduce your demand? How about using the anticipated arbitration costs to your advantage? Consider incentivizing your adversary with a “sealed settlement offer,” which could eventually make a settlement offeree pay a heavy price in such costs for miscalculation or intransigence.
In a proceeding under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) to determine if a dispute must be arbitrated, a federal district court performs a more limited function than in a plenary civil action. On an application to stay an action allegedly referable to arbitration, the court decides only if “the issue involved in such suit or proceeding is referable to arbitration under [a written arbitration] agreement.” 9 U.S.C. § 3. On a petition to compel arbitration, the court decides only whether “ the making of the agreement for arbitration or  the failure to comply therewith” are in issue. 9 U.S.C. § 4. If the court is satisfied that the two matters are not in issue, it must direct the parties to arbitrate in accordance with the agreement. But if either matter is in issue, the court must proceed summarily to trial. Id.
On April 30, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to review an unpublished Ninth Circuit decision in Varela v. Lamps Plus, Inc., No. 16-56085 (9th Cir. Aug. 3, 2017). See Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela (No. 17-988, U.S. Sup.). Lamps Plus framed the question presented to the Supreme Court as follows: “Whether the Federal Arbitration Act [“FAA”] forecloses a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement that would authorize class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements.”
The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1, et seq., provides the usual means of enforcing an arbitration agreement by compelling a party to arbitrate rather than litigate. Thus, the FAA enables an aggrieved party to seek “an order directing that such arbitration proceed in a manner provided for in such agreement.” 9 U.S.C. § 4.