3rd Circuit: Arbitration valid despite questions about loan assignment
On September 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded that a district court erred in finding that it had the authority to adjudicate the question of arbitrability based on questions concerning the underlying legality of an assignment of a consumer’s loan. The plaintiff took out a personal loan, which included an arbitration clause in the underlying agreement that delegated questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator. The plaintiff’s charged-off debt was assigned to the defendant who filed a lawsuit to recover the unpaid balance but later dismissed the suit rather than litigating. The plaintiff later contended that the defendant reported his loan delinquency to credit agencies in “an unlawful attempt to collect the [l]oan,” and sued, claiming that because the defendant was not licensed in Pennsylvania during the time period at issue it was not lawfully permitted to purchase the debt. The defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration under the purchase agreement with the loan originator. Focusing on the validity of the assignment, the district court denied the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the district court’s only responsibility was to determine whether the parties to the underlying loan “clearly and unmistakably” expressed an agreement to arbitrate the issue of arbitrability, and, if so, the district court was required to send questions about arbitrability to the arbitrator. The appellate court reasoned that even if the underlying assignment is invalidated later, it would not affect whether the initial agreement to arbitrate was valid. The appellate court vacated the district court’s order denying arbitration and remanded with instructions to grant the motion to stay and refer the matter to arbitration. A dissenting judge countered that the plaintiff never signed an arbitration agreement with the defendant, and that because the underlying assignment was invalid, the plaintiff never consented to arbitration with the assignee of the contract.