This month Arbitration Commentaries applauds the ICC for a small but valuable edit made in Article 6(3) as part of the ICC Rules revisions that became effective March 1, 2017. This edit, as explained below, is likely to fix a recent small dent in the armor of compétence-compétence in the US courts.
In a recent case in a US District Court, the Court held that a challenge by the prospective Claimant to the validity of the arbitration agreement, raised in opposition to a motion to compel arbitration made by Respondent in Claimant’s plenary action, was to be decided by the Court not an arbitrator because Article 6(3) in the 2012 version of the Rules did not, as the Court construed it, delegate to the arbitrator arbitrability objections raised in Court by the putative arbitration Claimant in opposition to the putative Respondent’s motion to compel arbitration. (Eisen v Venulum, Ltd., 2017 WL 1126137 (WDNY Mar. 27, 2017, appeal filed, 2d Cir., April 25, 2017).
In the 2012 version of the Rules, presumably still extant when this case was briefed and argued, Article 6(3) provided in relevant part: “If any party against which a claim has been made does not submit an answer, or raises one or more pleas concerning the existence, validity or scope of the agreement to arbitrate … any question of jurisdiction… shall be decided directly by the arbitral tribunal….” One can appreciate why the ICC edited the Rule. Some judge might otherwise read it — in the English version of the Rules — to assign arbitrability issues to the Tribunal only when raised by a “party against which a claim has been made.” This was the interpretation of Article 6(3) advanced by defendant (putative arbitration Respondent) in its motion to compel arbitration in the Eisen case. The District Judge embraced it, and held that the issue of unconscionability of the arbitration clause, clearly a “validity” issue, was for the US District Court because the parties had not clearly and unmistakably delegated it to the arbitrators.
Evidently neither party informed the Court that the ICC had fixed the syntax problem effective March 1, 2017. Article 6(3) as amended reads: “If any party against which a claim has been made does not submit an answer, or if any party raises one or more pleas concerning the existence, validity or scope of the arbitration agreement….” (emphasis supplied). Syntax problem solved. The intent of the Rule is not changed, presumably. Presumably it was always intended that under Article 6(3) a jurisdiction issue raised by “any party” and not only a party “against which a claim has been made” would be resolved by arbitration. But the language difficulty was only acute in the pre-arbitral setting of a litigation in which the party asserting the claim denies that she is bound to arbitrate the claim. In the courthouse, she is not a party against whom a claim is made but rather is the Plaintiff. And that was the dispositive consideration for the US District Court in Eisen.
Defendant/Respondent counsel in Eisen evidently did not inform the Court of the March 1, 2017 amendment, and evidently also did not call the Court’s attention to Article 6(1) (unchanged from 2012 to 2017 version): “Where the parties have agreed to submit to arbitration under the Rules, they shall be deemed to have submitted ipso facto to the Rules in effect on the date of commencement of the arbitration, unless they have agreed to submit to the Rules in effect on the date of their arbitration agreement.” The parties in Eisen did not specify the 2012 Rules, so they are signed up for the 2017 version.
Somebody should tell the Judge! It’s not too late to correct the ruling. But at the moment the case seems destined for the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and presumably for a reversal by a Summary Order that finds the case to be squarely within existing Second Circuit precedent (Shaw Group and Linhas cases) that an agreement to arbitrate under ICC Rules delegates arbitrability issues to the Tribunal.
All of this makes a difference, of course, because the Court proceeded to find that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable — itself a close question in the context of the underlying dispute which concerns a securities scam based on fine wine investments, and, of particular note, an agreement between Toronto scammers and their Buffalo NY victim to arbitrate in the British Virgin Islands under BVI law. But chances are this analysis will fall by the wayside save as the Arbitral Tribunal that will hear the case might find it persuasive.