The American Arbitration Association (known as “AAA”) is a well-recognized organization that administers binding arbitration. AAA has its own set of developed arbitration rules and procedures that must be followed in a construction arbitration referred as the Construction Industry Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures. (This is no different than a dispute proceeding in federal or state court where a party must follow a governing rule of civil procedures.)
Parties that incorporate a binding arbitration provision often include language that the arbitration must be conducted by AAA and/or pursuant to AAA’s Construction Industry Arbitration Rules. Sometimes when a dispute occurs, a party wants to challenge the scope of the arbitration provision because they prefer that their dispute gets resolved through litigation instead of arbitration. But, as illustrated by the Eleventh Circuit decision in U.S. Nutraceuticals, LLC v. Cyanotech Corp., 2014 WL 5471913 (11th Cir. 2014), this is not an easy accomplishment.
In this case, the buyer and seller entered into two contracts with the second contract succeeding the first contract. Both contracts contained a confidentiality provision; however, the second contract provided that a party can enforce the confidentiality provision in court. Both contracts also contained an arbitration provision for dispute resolution that required the arbitration to be conducted “under the auspices of the American Arbitration Association.” The second contract, though, excluded from arbitration disputes relating to a breach of the confidentiality provision. (Under the first contract, disputes relating to the breach of the confidentiality provision would be subject to arbitration.)
A dispute arose and the buyer sued the seller for claims associated with the breach of the confidentiality provision. Based on the allegations in the buyer’s lawsuit, it was unclear whether the first contract, the second contract, or both, were implicated by the dispute. The seller moved to compel the dispute to arbitration pursuant to the first contract that did not carve out an exception for breaches of the confidentiality provision. The district court denied the motion, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed ruling that the district court should have compelled arbitration. The reason was that the arbitration provisions incorporated the rules of the American Arbitration Association. Once the parties did this, they agreed that the arbitrator would decide whether a particular dispute was subject to the arbitration provision. Hence, questions as to the scope or arbitrability of a dispute would be determined by the arbitrator and not the court.
The arbitration clause in this case that required the arbitration to be conducted “under the auspices of the American Arbitration Association” is not language atypical to a construction contract. This language, however, was enough for the Eleventh Circuit to deem AAA’s applicable rules and procedures incorporated into the arbitration clause. In a construction dispute, Rule 9 of the Construction Industry Arbitration Rules (set forth below) authorizes the arbitrator to rule on the scope or arbitrability of a dispute, which is not ideal for a party that wants the court versus the arbitrator to have this power. It is important that parties that want to carve out exceptions to the arbitration clause to clearly convey these exceptions in the clause. Further, if parties want the court instead of the arbitrator to determine the scope or arbitrability of a particular claim, this should also be clearly conveyed in the clause. Otherwise, this determination will be made by the arbitrator.
(a) The arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope or validity of the arbitration agreement.
(b) The arbitrator shall have the power to determine the existence or validity of a contract of which an arbitration clause forms a part. Such an arbitration clause shall be treated as an agreement independent of the other terms of the contract. A decision by the arbitrator that the contract is null and void shall not for that reason alone render invalid the arbitration clause.
(c) A party must object to the jurisdiction of the arbitrator or to the arbitrability of a claim or counterclaim no later than the filing of the answering statement to the claim or counterclaim that gives rise to the objection. The arbitrator may rule on such objections as a preliminary matter or as part of the final award.
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