Wednesday, December 09, 2009

High Court Hears Arguments on Class Arbitration in Price Fixing Case

This posting was written by John W. Arden.

The U.S. Supreme Court today heard arguments on whether the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) permits the imposition of class arbitration when the parties’ agreement is silent on the issue.

The Court is reviewing a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City (2008-2 Trade Cases ¶76,355), holding that purchasers of shipping services could proceed with class arbitration of their price fixing claims against four major maritime shipping companies.

The federal appellate court held that class arbitration was permissible, even though arbitration clauses in the underlying maritime agreements did not specifically provide for it.

In their petition for certiorari, the maritime shipping companies argued that Supreme Court review was appropriate in light of a split among the circuits and because the case was free of threshold issues that previously thwarted review of the question.

The companies contended that “the Second Circuit’s decision that class arbitration may be imposed on parties whose arbitration contract does not provide for it cannot be reconciled with [the Supreme] Court’s FAA precedents.” Stolt-Nielsen SA v. Animalfeeds International Corp., Docket No. 08-1198, cert. granted June 15, 2009.

Authority of Arbitrators

Arguing for the shipping companies, Seth P. Waxman pointed out that—unlike courts—arbitrators derive their authority “solely from the consent of the parties to a particular agreement.”

When an agreement reveals no intent to add participants, arbitrators who nevertheless extend the process to hundreds of parties to other contracts “violate the basic principle reflected in the FAA that their authority is created and circumscribed by an agreement,” according to Mr. Waxman.

In a discussion with Justice Breyer, the petitioners' lawyer stated that there were two questions before the Court (1) whether there was a meeting of the minds between the parties on the issue of class arbitration and (2) if there was no meeting of the minds, and the contract was truly silent, whether ordering class arbitration would be permissible under the FAA.

Mr. Waxman answered his own questions—that no meeting of the minds was objectively revealed and therefore the arbitrator exceeded his authority under the FAA in requiring class arbitration. There was no express provision one way or the other, and maritime law governing the contract looks to the custom and practice in the industry, which is to not allow class arbitration.

Contract Interpretation

Speaking on behalf of the purchasers of shipping services, Cornelia T.L. Pillard maintained that the arbitrators only did what they were asked to do—interpret the contract. “They did not impose their own policy judgment,” she said. They relied on the broad language of the agreement and on the fact that “many other arbitrators had read similar language to permit class arbitration.”

By agreeing to arbitrate “any disputes,” the parties gave the arbitrators the authority to use class arbitration, among other procedures, that was appropriate to a particular case, she said.

There was an extensive discussion—between Justice Scalia and Ms. Pillard—about whether the arbitrators in the case agreed to permit class arbitration or simply did not agree to prohibit it. Ms. Pillard maintained that once the arbitrators had “affirmative general authorization” to choose any appropriate procedures, the shippers would have had to show the parties’ intent to preclude class arbitration.

Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that there is a difference “between allowing something and a background rule that requires it if you don’t say anything about it.” Later, he summed up, “So we have to decide, when . . . the contract says nothing about class actions, whether the background rule should be you can go ahead—or the background rule should be, you can’t go ahead.”

Justice Ginsburg opined that if the purchasers win this case and obtain class arbitration, that the shippers would insert “express no-class-action terms” in all their future contracts.

Ms. Pillard agreed, but said “at least it was incumbent on them to do that here if this was something they were so concerned about. . . . “

The 71-page transcript of the oral argument appears here on the U.S. Supreme Court website.

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