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By: Ted Peters
As reflected in a prior article, the United States Supreme Court recently agreed to take another look at the issue of arbitrability. In the case of Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., the Fifth Circuit concluded that the court, and not an arbitrator, had the power to decide the threshold issue of arbitrability. In its ruling, the circuit court embraced the “wholly groundless” argument, concluding that submission of the dispute to the arbitrator was unnecessary because the assertion of arbitrability was “wholly groundless.” This decision underscored the ongoing split of authority among the lower courts wherein some courts, but not all, recognize the “wholly groundless” exception. On appeal, the appellants sought to have the Supreme Court reject the exception as inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), the purpose of which is “to ensure that private agreements to arbitrate are enforced according to their terms.”
On January 8, 2019, newly appointed Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the court vacating and remanding the Firth Circuit’s decision. Writing for a unanimous court, Kavanaugh determined that the “wholly groundless” exception to the general rule that courts must enforce contracts that delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator is inconsistent with the FAA and Supreme Court precedent. Not surprisingly, the opinion revisited a number of prior cases in which the Court repeatedly held that the “agreement to arbitrate a gateway issue is simply an additional… agreement the party seeking arbitration asks the federal court to enforce, and the [FAA] operates on this additional arbitration agreement just as it does on any other.” (Opinion at p. 4, quoting Rent-A-Center, 561 U.S. 63, 70 (2010)). Kavanaugh noted that the Court had frequently rejected the argument that a claim of frivolity can derail the parties’ agreement to vest questions of arbitrability with an arbitrator and not a court. Citing Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564, 568 (1960), Kavanaugh stated: “A court has ‘no business weighing the merits of the grievance’ because the ‘agreement is to submit all grievances to arbitration, not merely those which the court will deem meritorious.’”
On January 15, 2019, the Court issued a ruling in yet another case involving arbitration, New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira. Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court. In an 8-0 decision (Kavanaugh took no part in the consideration or decision of the case), the high court affirmed the First Circuit’s determination that a court should determine whether the Federal Arbitration Act’s Section 1 exclusion for disputes involving the “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers applies before ordering arbitration. Unlike Henry Schein, which addressed the delegation of “gateway” questions of arbitrability, New Prime Inc. involved the judicial assessment of a statutorily based objection to arbitration.
But wait… there’s (one) more: Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, Dkt. No. 17-988. That case, argued on October 29, 2018, addresses whether the 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 opinion is expected at any time.
Coming full circle, it is fairly clear that the high court seems to remain firm in its embrace of arbitration agreements without permitting judicial meddling, provided there is “clear and unmistakable evidence” that the parties affirmatively agree to delegate the decision of arbitrability to the arbitrator. (Henry Schein at p. 6, citing First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944). Yet, at the same time, the Justices appear receptive to judicial involvement as long as there is a reasonable statutory basis for it.
The takeaway? Parties to arbitration agreements should rest confident in their ability to affirmatively delegate disputes to arbitration provided that the statutory framework upon which arbitration is based leaves no basis for judicial tinkering. This may provide solace for some, but for many it leaves unanswered questions along with the risks and costs associated with uncertainty.
If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].