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Home » Arbitration » U.S.S.C.: Arbitration Agreement “Silent” as to Class Actions Allows For Same

U.S.S.C.: Arbitration Agreement “Silent” as to Class Actions Allows For Same

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Andrew Frisch

Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter

Although not an FLSA case, this case has far ranging effects throughout the litigation and arbitration worlds. The issue presented to the Court was whether an arbitrator exceeded his authority by rendering a clause construction of the parties’ arbitration agreement that permitted class arbitration, where the parties’ arbitration agreement was silent on its face as to the issue. The Court held that the arbitrator did not exceed his authority and, as the Third Circuit had prior, affirmed the District Court’s opinion upholding the arbitrator’s clause construction permitting class arbitration, because it was a well-reasoned opinion and the parties’ had explicitly asked the arbitrator to render a clause construction. In so doing, the Supreme Court distinguished this case from its prior case Stolt-Nielsen explaining that:

[ ] Oxford misreads Stolt-Nielsen: We overturned the arbitral decision there because it lacked any contractual basis for ordering class procedures, not because it lacked,in Oxford’s terminology, a “sufficient” one. The parties in Stolt-Nielsen had entered into an unusual stipulation that they had never reached an agreement on class arbitration. See 559 U. S., at 668–669, 673. In that circumstance, we noted, the panel’s decision was not—indeed, could not have been—”based on a determination regarding the parties’ intent.” Id.,at 673, n. 4; see id., at 676 (“Th[e] stipulation left no room for an inquiry regarding the parties’ intent”). Nor, we continued, did the panel attempt toascertain whether federal or state law established a “default rule” to take effect absent an agreement. Id., at 673. Instead, “the panel simply imposed its own conception of sound policy” when it ordered class proceedings. Id.,at 675. But “the task of an arbitrator,” we stated, “is to interpret and enforce a contract, not to make public policy.” Id.,at 672. In “impos[ing] its own policy choice,” the panel “thus exceeded its powers.” Id., at 677.

The contrast with this case is stark. In Stolt-Nielsen, the arbitrators did not construe the parties’ contract, and did not identify any agreement authorizing class proceedings. So in setting aside the arbitrators’ decision, we found not that they had misinterpreted the contract, but that they had abandoned their interpretive role. Here, the arbitrator did construe the contract (focusing, per usual, on its language), and did find an agreement to permit class arbitration. So to overturn his decision, we would have to rely on a finding that he misapprehended the parties’ intent. But §10(a)(4) bars that course: It permits courts to vacate an arbitral decision only when the arbitrator strayed from his delegated task of interpreting a contract, not when he performed that task poorly. Stolt-Nielsen and this case thus fall on opposite sides of the line that §10(a)(4) draws to delimit judicial review of arbitral decisions.

While the unanimous decision supports the idea that class arbitration is permissible where the parties’ agreement is silent on its face, as with its prior decisions on class arbitration issues, the decision also leaves many related issues unresolved.

Click Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter to read the Court’s opinion and Justice Alito’s concurring opinion.


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