In a footnote in Sutter, SCOTUS hinted that the question of whether an arbitration agreement allowed for class arbitration may be one of the “gateway” questions of arbitrability that are presumptively for courts to decide. Last year, the Sixth Circuit went one step further, finding that the availability of class arbitration defaults to the courts. And this week, the Third Circuit agreed.
In Opalinksi v. Robert Half Int’l, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2014 WL 3733685 (3d Cir. July 30, 2014), a putative class of plaintiffs sued their employer. Their employment agreements called for arbitration, but said nothing about whether classwide arbitration was permitted. The employer moved to compel arbitration and the district court granted that motion, finding that the arbitrator should determine whether class arbitration was available.
The appellate court disagreed. It held that “whether an agreement provides for classwide arbitration is a ‘question of arbitrability’ to be decided by the District Court.” In support of its holding, the Third Circuit likened the decision about whether a class can go forward in arbitration to other arbitrability decisions that default to judges, like whether non-signatories are bound to arbitrate. The Third Circuit also noted that while procedural questions are generally for arbitrators, the availability of class arbitration has been construed by the Supreme Court as “not solely  a question of procedure” but instead a “substantive gateway dispute.”
I predict there will be more circuit court cases finding that judges are the presumptive decision-makers about class arbitration in the months to come.
By Liz Kramer