In Oxford Health Plans, LLC v. Sutter, a case addressing an arbitration clause that was silent as to whether it permitted class-wide arbitration, the United States Supreme Court held that so long as an arbitrator’s decision construes the parties’ contract, the arbitrator has not "exceeded his powers" – which would permit a court to vacate the decision under §10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) – and the arbitrator’s constructions should be upheld, “however good, bad, or ugly.”
Before we dig into Sutter, we have to go back a little to 2010 when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., and held that the FAA bars class arbitration unless the parties have specifically agreed to it. Many, including Oxford Health who relied on Stolt-Nielsen heavily in its briefing, read Stolt-Nielsen as the curtain closing on class-wide arbitrations, but Sutter (and AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion) makes clear that class-wide arbitration was not eradicated by Stolt-Nielsen.
The Facts Are Not Complicated, But the Procedure Is a Little Muddled
Sutter, a pediatrician, provided medical services to Oxford Health Plans’ insureds under a fee-for-services contract that required binding arbitration of contractual disputes, though it did not specify whether it covered class claims. The arbitration clause more broadly provided in relevant part:
“No civil action concerning any dispute arising under this Agreement shall be instituted before any court, and all such disputes shall be submitted to final and binding arbitration.”
Nevertheless, Sutter filed a proposed class action claiming Oxford failed to properly pay him and others like him who had similar contracts with Oxford. Oxford moved to compel arbitration, and the parties agreed the arbitrator should decide whether the contract authorized class arbitration. The arbitrator found that it did, reasoning that the clause sent to arbitration “’the same universal class of disputes’ that it barred the parties from bringing ‘as civil actions’ in court: the ‘Intent of the clause’ was ‘to vest in the arbitration process everything that is prohibited from the court process.’” Oxford then filed a motion to vacate the arbitrator’s decision claiming the arbitrator “exceeded [his] powers” under the FAA. The trial court denied the motion, and the Third Circuit affirmed.
While Sutter proceeded to arbitration, the Supreme Court decided Stolt-Nielsen and held that an arbitrator may employ class procedures only if the parties have authorized him to do so. Oxford asked the arbitrator to reconsider his decision on the class arbitration in light of Stolt-Nielsen, and the arbitrator held that Stolt-Nielsen had no effect on Sutter because the agreement at issue authorized class arbitration. Oxford then renewed its motion to vacate the arbitrator’s decision on the same basis as before. Once again, the trial court denied the motion and the Third Circuit affirmed.
Now On to the Fun Stuff – The Supreme Court’s Decision and Analysis
The heavy burden required to overturn an arbitrator’s opinion was critical in the Supreme Court’s analysis. Oxford argued that the arbitrator’s decision should be vacated under §10(a)(4) of the FAA, i.e., that the arbitrator “exceeded [his] powers .” However, the Court stated, “’[i]t is not enough … to show that the [arbitrator] committed an error —or even a serious error….Because the parties ‘bargained for the arbitrator’s construction of their agreement,’ an arbitral decision ‘even arguably construing or applying the contract’ must stand, regardless of a court’s review of its (de)merits….Only if ‘the arbitrator act[s] outside the scope of his contractually delegated authority ‘—issuing an award that ‘simply reflect[s] [his] own notions of [economic] justice’ rather than ‘draw[ing] its essence from the contract] ‘—may a court overturn his determination.”
The Supreme Court looked at the arbitrator’s ruling, which recited the “question for construction” the parties had submitted to him: “whether [their] Agreement allows for class action arbitration.” The arbitrator concluded that the arbitration clause “on its face…expresses the parties’ intent that the class action arbitration can be maintained.”
In trying to undue the arbitrator’s decision, Oxford relied on Stolt-Nielsen and argued that §10(a)(4)’s heavy burden can be met when an arbitrator imposes class arbitration without a sufficient contractual basis and argued that a court can vacate an arbitrator’s decision for misconstruing a contract to approve class proceedings.