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Posts Tagged ‘arbitration’

Arbitration and Class Action Waivers Upheld in ERISA Plans, but an Industry Shift Toward Arbitration Remains to be Seen

Posted on: September 26th, 2019

By: Justin Boron

The judicial trend in favor of arbitration and class action waivers continues—this time in employee benefit plans.

Last month, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel validated an arbitration and class action waiver agreement contained in an employee retirement plan, and in doing so, it overturned a 1984 precedent holding that fiduciary claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) could not be arbitrated.

In a pair of opinions issued in Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp.,[1] the panel found that the reasoning in Amaro v. Continental Can Company,[2] was irreconcilable with recent opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court, including American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., which had endorsed an arbitrator’s competence to interpret and apply federal statutes.[3]

The Dorman decision arose from a plan participant’s class action alleging a breach of fiduciary duty that resulted from the inclusion of Schwab affiliated investment funds in the 401k plan.  As yet another affirmation of arbitration and class action waiver agreements, it is sure to attract the attention of plan sponsors and plan fiduciaries.

But it might not necessarily be the game changer that previous class action waiver decisions have proven to be in the consumer and employment context, where companies have rushed to fold class action waivers into sales and employment agreements.

For one, several other circuit courts of appeal had already upheld arbitration agreements in plan documents.[4]  So at least in these circuits, plan sponsors have already been free to include arbitration agreements in employee benefit and retirement plans like the 401k plan at issue in Dorman.  Plaintiff also requested en banc rehearing earlier this month, so Amaro could still be revived.

Other reasons are more practical.  Including class action waivers in arbitration agreements might stave off a class action asserted in federal court.  But in contrast to their effect on wage-and-hour and consumer-protection class actions, class action waivers might not necessarily limit exposure on fiduciary claims under ERISA, which are themselves a kind of representative action brought on behalf of the plan for monetary relief.[5]  The Dorman and other appellate decisions have not expressly addressed whether a plan’s arbitration agreement could confine the action to individual monetary relief as opposed to plan-wide relief.  As a result, any judgment might benefit the plan and plan participants as a whole regardless of whether the action is styled as a class action.

Additionally, the cost savings attributed to arbitration of employment and consumer claims might not be present in ERISA claims, which are often decided on the papers in federal court. In contrast, arbitration likely requires the same amount of attorney time as in federal court, with the added costs of the arbitrator(s) and an arbitration hearing.  Combine the added costs with a limited standard of review, and it might not net a more favorable result than proceeding in federal court in a class action.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Justin Boron at [email protected].

[1] Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp., No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24735 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24791 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019).
[2] 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984).
[3] 570 U.S. 228, 233 (2013).
[4] See, e.g., Williams v. Imhoff, 203 F.3d 758 (10th Cir. 2000); Kramer v. Smith Barney, 80 F.3d 1080 (5th Cir. 1996); Pritzker v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, 7 F.3d 1110 (3d Cir. 1993); Bird v. Shearson Lehman/American Express, 926 F.2d 116 (2d Cir. 1991); Arnulfo P. Sulit, Inc. v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 847 F.2d 475 (8th Cir. 1988).
[5] 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(2); 29 U.S.C. § 1109.

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace: Construction Claim Arbitration and Res Judicata

Posted on: August 20th, 2019

By: Catherine Bednar

The Supreme Court of Connecticut recently affirmed the Appellate Court’s determination that when a property owner and a general contractor enter into binding, unrestricted arbitration to resolve disputes, the subcontractors are presumptively in privity with the general contractor for purposes of precluding subsequent litigation against them. In Girolametti v. Michael Horton Assocs., 332 Conn. 67 (June 25, 2019), Connecticut’s Supreme Court joined other jurisdictions in adopting a rebuttable presumption of privity between general contractors and subcontractors on a construction project in applying the doctrine of res judicata.

The Plaintiffs in Girolametti owned a retail store and hired the general contractor, Rizzo Corporation, to construct an expansion. After completion of the project, Plaintiffs and Rizzo entered arbitration to resolve various disputes concerning the Project, including Plaintiffs’ claims for alleged construction defects and delay and Rizzo’s claims for additional payments owed. Perhaps believing they would fare better in separate litigation, Plaintiffs abandoned the proceedings on the thirty-third day of the arbitration, which concluded two days later, and failed to present their damages claim contrary to the arbitrator’s recommendations.  The arbitrator ultimately entered an award in Rizzo’s favor.

Plaintiffs then pursued two lawsuits against Rizzo and five subcontractors collectively, which focused on the design and construction of the building.  All defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiffs’ claims had or could have been raised and resolved during the arbitration and were therefore barred. The trial judge granted Rizzo’s motion for summary judgment, but denied the subcontractors’ motions, holding the subs were not parties to the arbitration and not in privity with Rizzo. The Appellate Court reversed and granted summary judgment to the defendants.

In affirming the Appellate Court’s decision, the Supreme Court of Connecticut explained that “[w]hen applying the law to complex endeavors such as large-scale commercial construction, it often is desirable to adopt default rules, whether in the form of legal presumptions or standardized contracts.” The court reasoned the new default rule was an efficient and fair tool for resolving construction disputes.  A presumption of privity makes sense because not only is the general contractor in privity of contract with its subcontractors, but the general contractor is also responsible for the work of the subcontractors.  The court noted that absent a default rule, a property owner could relitigate its failed claims against the general contractor by bringing piecemeal, fact-intensive claims against subcontractors. The court also recognized that the default rule (which parties may contract around if they choose) is beneficial to both property owners and contractors by, resolving all outstanding disputes involving work on a project in the context of an owner-general contractor arbitration.

Having adopted the rebuttal presumption of privity between general contractors and subcontractors for the purposes of res judicata, the court found the facts and circumstances in the Girolametti case did not support an exception to the default rule. The court found the Plaintiffs reasonably should have understood the arbitration with Rizzo was the proper forum for addressing any claims against the subcontractors which were foreseeable at the time. In particular, the court pointed to the parties’ use of a standard form owner-contractor construction contract for their prime contract as evidence of their intent to abide by industry norms, making the general contractor responsible for all subcontractor work not separately contracted by the owner. The contract also contained a broad, unrestricted arbitration provision.

The Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in Girolametti serves as a reminder to parties engaged in complex construction disputes to carefully consider the scope of their arbitration provisions and evaluate the potential need to add claims and join third parties.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Catherine Bednar at [email protected].

Increasing Suits to Avoid Arbitrator Administrator Selection Clauses in California UIM Arbitration and Possible Responses

Posted on: July 11th, 2019

By: Timothy Kenna

Many automobile insurance policies designate an Arbitration Administrator to conduct UIM arbitrations under their rules.  Increasingly counsel for the insured are seeking to avoid arbitration under the rules of the selected Administrator arguing that there is an inherent bias created by the designation in the policy.  However, these objections are generally unsupported by any actual facts or credible legal arguments.

California Insurance Code section 11580.2, subdivision (f), provides that an uninsured motorist policy “shall provide that the determination as to whether the insured shall be legally entitled to recover damages, and if so entitled, the amount thereof, shall be made by agreement between the insured and the insurer or, in the event of disagreement, by arbitration.  The arbitration shall be conducted by a single neutral arbitrator.’”

The California appellate courts have routinely upheld arbitration clauses providing for the selection of neutral arbitrators by selected Administrators in a wide range of contexts outside of UIM disputes.  Additionally, Briggs v. Resolution Remedies (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 1402 upheld the Administrator selection in the UIM arbitration clause involved in that case.  The fact that UIM arbitrations have been conducted under these same provisions for decades with few attacks on the fairness of the results is testament to the fairness of the selections under these policies.

Responses to suits seeking to avoid the selection of Administrator include demurrers and motions to compel arbitration in accordance with the provisions of the UIM arbitration clause and Insurance Code section 11580.2(f).  Sanctions may also be sought.  CCP Section 128.5 provides that “a trial court may order a party, the party’s attorney, or both to pay the reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, incurred by another party as a result of bad-faith actions or tactics that are frivolous or solely intended to cause unnecessary delay . . . .”

“Actions or tactics” can include, for example, the making or opposing of motions or the filing and service of a complaint, cross-complaint, answer, or other responsive pleading.  When a tactic or action utterly lacks merit the courts are entitled to infer the party knew it lacked merit and pursued it for some ulterior motive.  Dolan v. Buena Engineers, Inc. (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 1500, 1505.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Timothy Kenna at [email protected].

Employers Should Consider “Prevailing Party” Language In Arbitration Clauses

Posted on: March 13th, 2019

By: Ken Menendez

Employers seeking to discourage frivolous claims by employees may wish to consider utilizing a “prevailing party” clause as part of their agreement to arbitrate.

Many employers utilize arbitration as a means of avoiding the generally greater cost and uncertainty of litigation in employment cases. Agreements to arbitrate are even more prevalent in employment agreements with highly compensated or professional employees.

One of the advantages of arbitration is the ability of the parties to the agreement to establish the rules governing the arbitration and arbitration award. In addition to procedural and logistical guidelines, the parties to an arbitration agreement may also authorize the arbitrator or arbitrators to award the costs, including attorney’s fees, of the arbitration to the prevailing party in the arbitration.

Such a clause might read as follows:

The arbitrators shall award the costs and expenses of the arbitration, including attorney’s fees, to the prevailing party as determined by the arbitrators in their discretion.

A “prevailing party clause” such as the foregoing may reduce the number of baseless claims against an employer, as potential claimants will have to weigh the risk of paying the employer’s costs in the event that the arbitrators rule that the employer was the prevailing party.

The foregoing arbitration clause requires the award of costs to the prevailing party. The drafters of the clause could, if they wished to do so, also make the award of costs discretionary simply by changing the word “shall” to “may.” It is also important to note that the foregoing clause requires the arbitrators to determine which party is the prevailing party. Because many employment cases contain both claims and counterclaims, placing the responsibility for identifying the prevailing party on the arbitrators eliminates subsequent disputes between the parties regarding which party was the prevailing party.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Ken Menendez at [email protected].

Latest FINRA Rules to Regulate Expungement Actions

Posted on: February 19th, 2019

By: Margot Parker

FINRA recently announced its approval of enhanced training and guidance for arbitrators hearing expungement requests, an issue under increasing scrutiny as over 90% of such actions are currently granted. The proposal is now under review by the SEC and represents a step toward making it more difficult for brokers to have customer complaints expunged from their public records. The proposed rules also include a ban on compensated non-attorney representatives (NARs) from representing clients in FINRA arbitrations, as part of another step to strengthen the arbitration process.

While a ban on NARs has been widely supported, critics of the expungement process believe more should be done to take the burden away from customers to fight expungement actions. FINRA states that it shares these concerns. To reduce the high volume of expungements in the past, it codified a rule stating: “expungement is an extraordinary remedy that should be recommended only under appropriate circumstances.” With these recent steps, we may continue to see changes in the regulation of FINRA expungement actions in the near future.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Margot Parker at (310) 937-2066 or [email protected].