Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc.

Respondent Archer & White Sales, Inc., sued petitioner Henry Schein, Inc., alleging violations of federal and state antitrust law and seeking both money damages and injunctive relief. The relevant contract between the parties provided for arbitration of any dispute arising under or related to the agreement, except for, among other things, actions seeking injunctive relief. Invoking the Federal Arbitration Act, Schein asked the District Court to refer the matter to arbitration, but Archer & White argued that the dispute was not subject to arbitration because its complaint sought injunctive relief, at least in part. Schein contended that because the rules governing the contract provide that arbitrators have the power to resolve arbitrability questions, an arbitrator—not the court—should decide whether the arbitration agreement applied. Archer & White countered that Schein’s argument for arbitration was wholly groundless, so the District Court could resolve the threshold arbitrability question. The District Court agreed with Archer & White and denied Schein’s motion to compel arbitration. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Held: The “wholly groundless” exception to arbitrability is inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act and this Court’s precedent. Under the Act, arbitration is a matter of contract, and courts must enforce arbitration contracts according to their terms. Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U. S. 63, 67. The parties to such a contract may agree to have an arbitrator decide not only the merits of a particular dispute, but also “ ‘gateway’ questions of ‘arbitrability.’ ” Id., at 68– 69. Therefore, when the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, a court may not override the contract, even if the court thinks that the arbitrability claim is wholly groundless. That conclusion follows also from this Court’s precedent. See AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U. S. 643, 649– 650.

Archer & White’s counterarguments are unpersuasive. First, its argument that §§3 and 4 of the Act should be interpreted to mean that a court must always resolve questions of arbitrability has already been addressed and rejected by this Court. See, e.g., First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U. S. 938, 944. Second, its argument that §10 of the Act—which provides for back-end judicial review of an arbitrator’s decision if an arbitrator has “exceeded” his or her “powers”—supports the conclusion that the court at the front end should also be able to say that the underlying issue is not arbitrable is inconsistent with the way Congress designed the Act. And it is not this Court’s proper role to redesign the Act. Third, its argument that it would be a waste of the parties’ time and money to send wholly groundless arbitrability questions to an arbitrator ignores the fact that the Act contains no “wholly groundless” exception. This Court may not engraft its own exceptions onto the statutory text. Nor is it likely that the exception would save time and money systemically even if it might do so in some individual cases. Fourth, its argument that the exception is necessary to deter frivolous motions to compel arbitration overstates the potential problem. Arbitrators are already capable of efficiently disposing of frivolous cases and deterring frivolous motions, and such motions do not appear to have caused a substantial problem in those Circuits that have not recognized a “wholly groundless” exception.

The Fifth Circuit may address the question whether the contract at issue in fact delegated the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, as well as other properly preserved arguments, on remand. Pp. 4–8. 878 F. 3d 488, vacated and remanded.

KAVANAUGH, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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