Ninth Circuit considers "crux of the complaint" rule to determine when arbitrator decides arbitrability

It's not to early to nominate the year 2010 as the year of the arbitration wars.  In our latest installment, Obi Wan is asked to assemble forces...sorry, Clone Wars.  Today the Ninth Circuit examined the question of "whether the 'crux of the complaint' rule requires the question of arbitrability to be determined by the arbitrator when a plaintiff’s challenge to the arbitration clause does not appear in his complaint." Bridge Fund Capital Corporation v. Fastbucks Franchise Corporation, Slip op., at 14205 (9th Cir. Sept. 16, 2010).

In the span of a few paragraphs, the Court set out the essentials of the "crux of the complaint" test:

“The arbitrability of a particular dispute is a threshold issue to be decided by the courts,” Nagrampa, 469 F.3d at 1268, unless that issue is explicitly assigned to the arbitrator, see Rent-A-Ctr., W., Inc. v. Jackson, ___ U.S. ___, 130 S. Ct. 2772, 2775 (2010) (holding that arbitrability is a question for the arbitrator “where the agreement explicitly assigns that decision to the arbitrator”). While the validity of an arbitration clause can be a question for the arbitrator where the “crux of the complaint is that the contract as a whole (including its arbitration provision)” is invalid, the court determines the validity of the clause where the challenge is “specifically [to] the validity of the agreement to arbitrate.” Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440, 444 (2006).

In other words, when a plaintiff’s legal challenge is that a contract as a whole is unenforceable, the arbitrator decides the validity of the contract, including derivatively the validity of its constituent provisions (such as the arbitration clause). See Buckeye, 546 U.S. at 445-46 (explaining that “as a matter of substantive federal arbitration law, an arbitration provision is severable from the remainder of the contract. [U]nless the challenge is to the arbitration clause itself, the issue of the contract’s validity is considered by the arbitrator in the first instance.”). However, when a plaintiff argues that an arbitration clause, standing alone, is unenforceable—for reasons independent of any reasons the remainder of the contract might be invalid—that is a question to be decided by the court. See Cox v. Ocean View Hotel Corp., 533 F.3d 1114, 1120 (9th Cir. 2008) (“[O]ur case law makes clear that courts properly exercise jurisdiction over claims raising (1) defenses existing at law or in equity for the revocation of (2) the arbitration clause itself.”).

After Buckeye, we have applied the “crux of the complaint” rule as a method for differentiating between challenges to the arbitration provision alone and challenges to the entire contract. Nagrampa, 469 F.3d at 1268. In Buckeye, the Court held that “because [the plaintiffs] challenge[d] the Agreement, but not specifically its arbitration provisions, those provisions are enforceable apart from the remainder of the contract. The challenge should therefore be considered by an arbitrator, not a court.” 546 U.S. at 446. In Nagrampa, we distinguished Buckeye because “the complaint in Buckeye, unlike Nagrampa’s complaint, did not contain claims that the arbitration provision alone was void and unenforceable, but rather alleged that the arbitration provision was unenforceable because it was contained in an illegal usurious contract which was void ab initio.” Nagrampa, 469 F.3d at 1268. Fastbucks contends that Buckeye, and not Nagrampa, applies here because Plaintiffs’ complaint does not contain a specific challenge to the arbitration clause.

We disagree. This case presents a third scenario not described in either Buckeye or Nagrampa; namely, a specific challenge to the arbitration clause that is not raised as a separate claim in the complaint. See Winter v. Window Fashions Prof’ls, Inc., 83 Cal. Rptr. 3d 89, 93 (Ct. App. 2008) (distinguishing Buckeye and Nagrampa and holding that arbitrability was for the court to decide where the plaintiff’s specific “challenge to the arbitration clause was [raised] in response to [a] petition to compel arbitration” rather than in the complaint). Because the material question is whether the challenge to the arbitration provision is severable from the challenge to the contract as a whole, Buckeye, 546 U.S. 444-45; Rent-A-Ctr., 130 S. Ct. at 2778, the inclusion of, or failure to include, a specific challenge in the complaint is not determinative. See Winter, 83 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 93. What matters is the substantive basis of the challenge.

Slip op., at 14209-11.

I report on this decision primarily because the sudden explosion of arbitration issues in different contexts is interesting, at least to me.  Tomorrow I will find out whether I successfully beat back a claim that Stolt-Nielsen preempts Gentry.  It looks like I will be paying attention to arbitration decisions for some time to come.