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.
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On April 30, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to review an unpublished Ninth Circuit decision in Varela v. Lamps Plus, Inc., No. 16-56085 (9th Cir. Aug. 3, 2017).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.”
An ex parte proceeding in a U.S. court to “recognize,” “enforce,” or “confirm” an arbitration award against a foreign sovereign is improper. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a lengthy and instructive decision to that effect in Mobil Cerro Negro, Ltd. v. Bolivarian Republic of Venez., 863 F.3d 96 (2d. Cir. 2017). Its lesson is that in the United States, the only way to enforce (or recognize or confirm) an arbitral award issued against a sovereign entity by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (“ICSID”) (and probably otherwise as well) is in compliance with the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”).
As discussed in an earlier post, obtaining discovery from a non-party to an arbitration often is easier said than done. Depending on the law of the place of arbitration, arbitrators may not be able to compel document production or testimony from a non-party before a hearing on the merits. This can impair a claimant’s ability to prove its claims considerably, or in some cases altogether inhibit a potential claimant from learning the facts necessary to identify the correct respondent(s) or to articulate a competent claim. Moreover, while Fed. R. Civ. P. 27 permits pre-action discovery to “perpetuate testimony regarding [a] matter that may be cognizable,” many federal courts have interpreted the phrase “perpetuate testimony” to mean that Rule 27 may only be used to “preserve testimony which could otherwise be lost,” rather than as a “substitute for discovery.” Ash v. Cort, 512 F.2d 909, 912 (3d Cir. 1975); accord Bryant v. Am. Fedn. of Musicians of the United States, 666 Fed. Appx. 14, 16 (2d Cir. 2016); In re Allegretti, 229 F.R.D. 93, 96 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (“[Rule 27] is not a method of discovery to determine whether a cause of action exists; and, if so, against whom the action should be instituted.”)).
Arbitration is a creature of contract. So is the law concerning contracts with an arbitration clause the same as the law concerning any other contract? Almost. One must always bear in mind the “separability” or “independence” of the arbitration agreement — the autonomy principle.
The courts undoubtedly have the power to grant provisional remedies in aid of a pending arbitration – including temporary restraining orders, preliminary injunctions, and attachments. As a recent Fifth Circuit decision reminds us, the courts also can grant such remedies in aid of an arbitration that has yet to be commenced. Indeed, those remedies may be available under state law, even if the future arbitration is governed by the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the “Convention”), and even if the arbitration will be sited in a state other than the one in which the interim remedy is sought.
Published in Law 360 (February 15, 2018)
In a series of articles over the past several months, we asked whether “class arbitration” — meaning the utilization of the Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 class action protocol in an arbitration proceeding — is ultimately viable in U.S. jurisprudence. We suggested that it arguably is not, considering the fundamental nature of arbitration. And we noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had not addressed core issues that will ultimately determine the viability of a class arbitration award, nor had the various Courts of Appeal grappled with those issues. But the courts in the Second Circuit have begun to do so.
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1782, “[t]he district court of the district in which a person resides or is found may order him to . . . produce a document for use in a proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal . . . .” Courts in the Second Circuit appear to be coming around to accepting that a commercial arbitration can be “a foreign or international tribunal” for these purposes. Swell. But there is one more thing: they are also likely to treat a subpoena under that statute like a subpoena under Fed. R. Civ. P. 45, and therefore require that the court have personal jurisdiction — general, preferably — over the subpoena target. See, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. v. APR Energy Holding Ltd., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 142404 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 1, 2017) (“ANZ Bank”).