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Special Alert: Eleventh Circuit upholds terms of arbitration agreement in challenge under Dodd-Frank

Buckley Special Alert

On May 26, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a published decision holding that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit the enforceability of delegation clauses contained in consumer arbitration agreements “in any way.” This opinion is of potentially broad significance in the class action and arbitration space since it is one of the first appellate decisions in the country concerning Dodd-Frank’s arbitration provision and supports broad enforcement of delegation clauses even where a statute could allegedly prohibit arbitration of the underlying claim.

In Attix v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida denying Carrington’s motion to compel arbitration that was based on the plaintiff’s argument that the anti-waiver provision in the Dodd-Frank Act, prohibited enforcement of the arbitration agreement.  The anti-waiver provision of the Dodd-Frank Act provides that “no other agreement between the consumer and the creditor relating to the residential mortgage loan or extension of credit . . . shall be applied or interpreted so as to bar a consumer from bringing an action in an appropriate district court of the United States.” The district court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the Dodd-Frank Act prohibited arbitration of the underlying dispute and in doing so, side-stepped the delegation clause that delegated such threshold determinations to an arbitrator.

In a 52-page published opinion, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision of the district court, holding that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit enforcing delegation clauses, such as the clause at issue, which “clearly and unmistakably” delegates to the arbitrator “threshold arbitrability disputes.”  The circuit court found that in such circumstances, all questions of arbitrability are delegated to an arbitrator “unless the law prohibits the delegation of threshold arbitrability issues itself.”

The court went on to broadly hold that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit the enforceability of delegation clauses “in any way.” In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit explained that if Dodd-Frank had been intended to prohibit the enforcement of delegation clauses, then it could have been drafted that way, but instead, “the actual statute is silent as to who may decide whether a particular contract falls within the scope of its protections.” While the Dodd-Frank Act prohibits arbitration agreements from being applied or interpreted in a particular manner, it does not prohibit the enforcement of delegation clauses, and as a result, the court held that under the terms of Carrington and the plaintiff’s agreement, the arbitrator (and not the court) must determine the threshold question of whether the Dodd-Frank Act prohibits enforcement of Carrington’s arbitration agreement since it is a “quintessential arbitrability question.” 

Significantly, the court also held that a challenge to an agreement to arbitrate on the basis that a statute precludes its enforcement is not a “specific challenge” to a delegation clause found within the arbitration agreement, such that the court lacks jurisdiction to review the enforceability of the delegation clause. In other words, where a challenge “is only about the enforceability of the parties’ primary arbitration agreement” and there is a delegation clause, “an arbitrator must resolve it.” As the Eleventh Circuit explained, “when an appeal presents a delegation agreement and a question of arbitrability, we stop. We do not pass go.” 

This case has significance for anyone considering drafting an arbitration agreement particularly in a class action context.  A threshold drafting question is whether or not to delegate issues of arbitrability to the arbitrator or allow a court to resolve the issue.  Under this decision, a question of whether a statute bars arbitration of claims is for the arbitrator to decide when there is a delegation clause, unless the statute also explicitly bars delegation clauses.  This decision reinforces that inclusion of a properly drafted delegation clause in an arbitration agreement can result in a case improperly filed in court being more quickly sent to arbitration, even where the dispute is whether a statute prohibits the claim from being arbitrated in the first instance.

Buckley represented Carrington on appeal with a team comprising Fredrick Levin, who argued the appeal, Scott Sakiyama, Brian Bartholomay, and Sarah Meehan. For questions regarding the case, please contact one of the team members or a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.

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