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U.S. Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Arbitrator’s Finding of Agreement to Class Arbitration

In Arbitrability, Arbitration, Class-wide Arbitration on June 10, 2013 at 6:27 pm
U.S. Supreme Court building.

U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a ruling today with implications for wage & hour class actions, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed an arbitrator’s interpretation of an arbitration clause to permit class proceedings.  Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, No. 12-135, 569 U.S. __ (June 10, 2013).  The Court considered whether an arbitrator, who found that the parties’ contract provided for class arbitration, “exceeded [his] powers” under §10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U. S. C. §1 et seq.  Delivering the unanimous opinion of the Court and citing Stolt-Nielsen S. A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U. S. 662, 684 (2010), Justice Kagan concluded that the arbitrator’s decision survives the limited judicial review §10(a)(4) allows.  Slip Op. at 1-2.

The Court decided that Oxford must live with its choice of arbitral forum and the arbitrator’s construction of the contract, “however good, bad, or ugly”:

So long as the arbitrator was “arguably construing” the contract—which this one was—a court may not correct his mistakes under §10(a)(4). Eastern Associated Coal, 531 U. S., at 62 (internal quotation marks omitted). The potential for those mistakes is the price of agreeing to arbitration. As we have held before, we hold again: “It is the arbitrator’s construction [of the contract] which was bargained for; and so far as the arbitrator’s decision concerns construction of the contract, the courts have no business overruling him because their interpretation of the contract is different from his.” Enterprise Wheel, 363 U. S. at 599. The arbitrator’s construction holds, however good, bad, or ugly.

Id. at 8 (emphasis supplied).

In sum, Oxford chose arbitration, and it must now live with that choice. Oxford agreed with Sutter that an arbitrator should determine what their contract meant, including whether its terms approved class arbitration. The arbitrator did what the parties requested: He provided an interpretation of the contract resolving that disputed issue. His interpretation went against Oxford, maybe mistakenly so. But still, Oxford does not get to rerun the matter in a court. Under §10(a)(4), the question for a judge is not whether the arbitrator construed the parties’contract correctly, but whether he construed it at all.Because he did, and therefore did not “exceed his powers,”we cannot give Oxford the relief it wants. We accordingly affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Id. at 8-9.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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