A 2019 United States Supreme Court opinion addressing the issue of whether the Federal Arbitration Act permits a court to decline to enforce an agreement delegating questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator if the court concludes the claim of arbitrability is “wholly groundless.”
The Court held that since the Federal Arbitration Act did not contain a “wholly groundless” exception to the general rule that courts must enforce contracts that delegate threshold arbitrability questions to an arbitrator, it was improper for the courts to apply that exception and determine the arbitrability questions.
In his first authored opinion as a Supreme Court justice, Justice Kavanaugh summarized the issue and the Court’s unanimous ruling as follows:
Under the Federal Arbitration Act, parties to a contract may agree that an arbitrator rather than a court will resolve disputes arising out of the contract. When a dispute arises, the parties sometimes may disagree not only about the merits of the dispute but also about the threshold arbitrability question—that is, whether their arbitration agreement applies to the particular dispute. Who decides that threshold arbitrability question? Under the Act and this Court’s cases, the question of who decides arbitrability is itself a question of contract. The Act allows parties to agree by contract that an arbitrator, rather than a court, will resolve threshold arbitrability questions as well as underlying merits disputes. Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U. S. 63, 68−70 (2010); First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U. S. 938, 943−944 (1995). Even when a contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, some federal courts nonetheless will short-circuit the process and decide the arbitrability question themselves if the argument that the arbitration agreement applies to the particular dispute is “wholly groundless.” The question presented in this case is whether the “wholly groundless” exception is consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act. We conclude that it is not. The Act does not contain a “wholly groundless” exception, and we are not at liberty to rewrite the statute passed by Congress and signed by the President. When the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, the courts must respect the parties’ decision as embodied in the contract.