THE ARBITRATION PROVISION SHOULD DICTATE WHETHER JUDGE OR ARBITRATOR DECIDES ARBITRABILITY OF ISSUE

An arbitration provision should specifically dictate whether you want a judge or arbitrator to decide the arbitrability of a claim or issue.  The reality is, if you prefer your disputes to be resolved by arbitration, you should dictate that the arbitrator decides the arbitrability of issues or claims.  This way the party opposing arbitration cannot try to circumvent this by having the judge decide, potentially altering the forum for disputes, and otherwise slowing down the dispute resolution process.   The recent case discussed below highlights why specifying who decides the arbitrability of a claim or issue is worthy.

In Doe v. Natt, 45 Fla. L. Weekly D712a (Fla. 2d DCA 2020), involving an arbitration agreement in an Airbnb clickwrap agreement, the matter at-issue was who decides whether a dispute is arbitrable, i.e., subject to the arbitration provision, a judge or the arbitrator.  (A clickwrap agreement is an online agreement we enter into with a company that requires us to click “I agree” boxes to proceed.  We have all entered into one.)    The arbitration provision required the parties to proceed to arbitration with the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”):

Arbitration Rules and Governing Law. The arbitration will be administered by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) in accordance with the Commercial Arbitration Rules and the Supplementary Procedures for Consumer Related Disputes (the “AAA Rules”) then in effect, except as modified by this Dispute Resolution section. (The AAA Rules are available at www.adr.org/arb_med or by calling the AAA at 1-800-778-7879.) The Federal Arbitration Act will govern the interpretation and enforcement of this section.

AAA’s rules (whether dealing with a commercial or construction dispute) provide, “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 or the arbitrability of any claim or counterclaim.”  In other words, the arbitrator determines the arbitrability of a claim.

However, the Second District Court of Appeal focused on the fact that the arbitration provision at-issue did not specifically state the arbitrator is to decide issues of arbitrability and AAA’s rules were not attached to the clickwrap agreement. And, while other appellate courts that have found that an arbitrator determines arbitrability when AAA’s rules have been incorporated by reference into an arbitration provision, the Second District disagreed with those holdings finding that generally incorporating AAA’s rules was too general and ambiguous as to who decides the arbitrability of a dispute:

We hold that the clickwrap agreement’s arbitration provision and the AAA rule it references that addresses an arbitrator’s authority to decide arbitrability did not, in themselves, arise to “clear and unmistakable” evidence that the parties intended to remove the court’s presumed authority to decide such questions. The evidence on what these parties may have agreed to about the “who decides” arbitrability question was ambiguous; therefore, the court retained its presumed authority to decide the arbitrability dispute.

Doe, supra.

To avoid this generality or ambiguity, and arbitration provision should unmistakably dictate whether a judge or arbitrator decides the arbitrability of a claim or issue.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

YOU CANNOT ARBITRATE CLAIMS NOT COVERED BY THE ARBITRATION AGREEMENT

Regardless of the type of contract you are dealing with, “[a]rbitration provisions are contractual in nature, and therefore, construction of such provisions and the contracts in which they appear is a matter of contract interpretation.”  Wiener v. Taylor Morrison Services, Inc., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D3012f (Fla. 1st DCA 2019).   This means if you want to preserve your right to arbitrate claims you want to make sure your contract unambiguously expresses this right.  Taking this one step further, if you want to make sure an arbitrator, and not the court, determines whether the claim is arbitrable if a dispute arises, you want to make sure that right is expressly contained in the arbitration provision.

For example, in Wiener, a homeowner sued a home-builder for violation of the building code – a fairly common claim in a construction defect action.  The homeowner’s claim dealt with a violation of building code  as to exterior stucco deficiencies.   The home-builder moved to compel the lawsuit to arbitration based on a structural warranty it provided to the homeowner that contained an arbitration provision.   The structural warranty, however, was limited and did not apply to non-load-bearing elements which, per the warranty, were not deemed to have the potential for a major structural defect (e.g., a structural defect to load-bearing elements that would cause the home to be unsafe or inhabitable).  The trial court compelled the dispute to arbitration pursuant to the arbitration provision in the structural warranty.

But, the First District Court of Appeal held the trial court was wrong to compel the dispute to arbitration.  Why?  The homeowner did not sue the home-builder for a breach of the structural warranty.  Even if the homeowner was trying to navigate around the structural warranty, the warranty was limited in nature and would NOT apply to a claim dealing with defective stucco, which is not a load-bearing issue, to say the least.  See Wiener, supra (“[C]onsidering the plain meaning of the structural warranty agreement, the [plaintiff’s] complaint does not raise claims subject to arbitration under that agreement.”).  The home-builder could not have its cake and eat it too — it could not exclude claims from the warranty and then try to arbitrate those very excluded claims per an arbitration provision in the warranty.

Here, the issue of whether the claim was arbitrable (subject to arbitration), was decided by the court, as it typically is.  The arbitrability of a claim is typically a question for the court.  Wiener, supra. This does not mean that it needs to be that way.   Parties can clearly include in their arbitration provision that the determination of the arbitrability of a claim is a determination for an arbitrator, and not the court.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

SUPREME COURT HOLDS ARBITRATOR CAN FULLY DECIDE THRESHOLD ARBITRABILITY ISSUE

shutterstock_1018025605The United States Supreme Court recently decided parties to a contract can agree, under the Federal Arbitration Act, an arbitrator, rather than a court, can fully resolve the initial arbitrability question.  Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer and White Sales, Inc., 2019 WL 122164 (2019).  The arbitrability question is whether the dispute itself is subject to arbitration under an arbitration provision.  Parties that do not want to arbitrate try to circumvent this process by filing a lawsuit and asking the court to determine the threshold arbitrability question.  

 

In Henry Schein, Inc., the contract at-issue provided:

 

This Agreement shall be governed by the laws of the State of North Carolina.  Any dispute arising under or related to this Agreement (except for actions seeking injunctive relief and disputes related to trademarks, trade secrets, or other intellectual property) shall be resolved by binding arbitration in accordance with the arbitration rules of the American Arbitration Association.  The place of arbitration shall be in Charlotte, North Carolina.

 

The plaintiff in this case asserted a claim for injunctive relief (among other claims) and argued that, therefore, the dispute is not subject to arbitration based on the exception in the provision.  The initial, threshold issue became whether the dispute was subject to arbitration and, importantly, who decides this issue. The Court further looked at whether a trial court can resolve this issue under the “wholly groundless” exception, i.e.,the court can decide the issue if the argument for arbitration is wholly groundless.  

 

The Supreme Court held that, “[w]hen the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, a court may not override the contract.  In those circumstances, a court possesses no power to decide the arbitrability issue.  That is true even if the court thinks that the argument that the arbitration agreement applies to a particular dispute is wholly groundless.” Henry Schein, Inc, supra, at *4.  Through this ruling, the Court rejected the wholly groundless exception that would allow a trial court to rule on an threshold arbitrability question if the argument for arbitration is wholly groundless. 

 

The Court did not rule as to whether the arbitration provision at-issue delegated the arbitrability question to the arbitrator.   However, the American Arbitration Association’s rules provide that arbitrators have the power to resolve such threshold arbitrability questions so there is an argument that the provision through reference to the American Arbitration Association gave this authority to the arbitrator.  But, the best thing to do, as always, is to be clear.   Include language in the arbitration provision that specifically states that an arbitrator is authorized to decide the arbitrability of issues, particularly if it is your arbitration provision and you want disputes resolved by arbitration.  Conversely, if you want the initial, threshold issue of arbitrability to be decided by a court, make sure to specify that in the provision.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.