The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of a motion to compel arbitration on the grounds that the designated forum in the arbitration agreement was both unavailable and integral to the agreement. Appellee Jessica Parm acquired a loan from Western Sky Financial, owned by a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (“the Tribe”) member. The loan agreement included a binding arbitration clause, specifying the Tribe would conduct the arbitration according to tribal governing rules, but allowed Parm a right to choose amongst certain arbitral organizations to administer the arbitration. At the time of both the agreement and the lawsuit, no tribal arbitral forum nor governing rules existed.
Parm sued the National Bank of California (“Bank”) for illegally permitting Western Sky to initiate electronic fund transfers from her account under the loan agreement. Bank moved to compel arbitration under the provision referenced above. In denying the motion, the court first applied traditional rules of contract construction to reject the Bank’s arguments, interpreting the choice of arbitrator provision as subject to the tribal arbitration provision to give meaning to both. It read an exception clause as applying to its nearest-reasonable referent, the “Dispute[s]” excepted from arbitration, rather than as an exception to the tribal exclusivity provision. It then stated that even if the Bank’s arguments were persuasive, the contract would be ambiguous, and thus construed against the Bank as the draftor. Finally, the court held the arbitration clause unenforceable, rather than substituting an available forum, based on how integral the tribal forum provisions were to the agreement. The mandatory language of and pervasive references to the Tribe and its rules indicated the use of that forum was not merely an ancillary concern. Because the agreement required arbitration in an unavailable forum that was integral to the agreement itself, the arbitration clause was deemed unenforceable. Parm v. Nat’l Bank of Cal., N.A., No. 15-12509 (11th Cir. Aug. 29, 2016).