I am celebrating five years of blogging by publishing one “listicle” per day this week. Monday, the topic was the five biggest surprises in arbitration law; Tuesday it was the five states most hostile to arbitration. (None of those states have called me to complain yet…) Today, it is the five arbitration cases lawyers really ought to know. I don’t care if you are a rural solo practitioner who handles a bit of everything or a transactional lawyer or a general counsel who just handles exports, arbitration has become a significant part of our system of justice. It is likely that every lawyer will bump up against it at some point in their career. When (or better yet, before) that happens to you, here are the five cases you really should read.

Five Arbitration Cases You Should Know

  1. Rent-A-Center, West v. Jackson, 130 S. Ct. 2772 (2010). This case is the culmination of the “severability” doctrine, which explains whether a litigant’s challenge to enforceability should be heard in arbitration or in court. For the uninitiated, reading this case is like reading that Bruce Springsteen is actually an alien. It is that counter-intuitive.
  2. BG Group, PLC v. Republic of Argentina, 134 S. Ct. 1198 (2014). This case tries to explain which of the other potentially dispositive issues get decided in arbitration and which are decided in court (conditions precedent, waiver, scope, etc). It also gives some guidance as to the deferential standard of review for arbitrator decisions, and shows the importance of the rules parties chose to govern the arbitration.
  3. AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011). This case establishes that a state statute or line of cases is preempted if it “stands as an obstacle” to the objectives of the Federal Arbitration Act. It’s a squishy standard, but you need to know it’s there, because it potentially preempts a lot of state law (that you would otherwise rely on to invalidate the arbitration agreement).
  4. Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064 (2013). This case shows how difficult it is to have an arbitration award vacated, especially if the argument boils down to: the arbitrator just got it wrong. Even “grave error” is not enough.
  5. Citizens Bank v. Alafabco, Inc., 123 S. Ct. 2037 (2003). This case drives home the reach of the Federal Arbitration Act. It can apply in state and federal courts, and it can apply when both parties are residents of the same state. Just assume it always applies.

Of course, these cases are just the tip of the iceberg. If you have a real arbitration dispute, you will need to read many more cases than these. But, you have to start somewhere, and these are a solid starting place.