If I had drafted this annual summary post on November 7, 2016, it would have looked different. At that point, the year had produced numerous (final or proposed) federal regulations that significantly restricted the use of arbitration with consumers in large industries. In addition, Justice Scalia’s death, along with the prospective election of Secretary Clinton, appeared poised to alter the make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has voted 5-4 in many of the critical arbitration decisions in the last decade.

As I draft this post on January 4, 2017, it is still true that 2016 produced multiple federal regulations and some significant decisions that move away from the rigid arbitration-enforcement world view that Justice Scalia professed, but the election of Donald Trump, and the opening on the U.S. Supreme Court, may undo those pro-consumer changes.

Here were the big arbitration developments I saw in 2016:

  • The death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. He authored arbitration blockbusters like Buckeye Check Cashing v. Cardegna (2006); Rent-A-Center, West v. Jackson (2010); AT&T Mobility v Concepcion (2011); American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (2013).
  • Courts created uncertainty for the enforcement of delegation clauses. Enforced in Mohamed v. Uber Technologies, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2016 WL 4651409 (9th Cir. Sept. 7, 2016) and Regions Bank v. Rice, 2016 WL 3031357 (Ala. May 27, 2016). Rejected in Morgan v. Sanford Brown Institute, 2016 WL 3248016 (N.J. June 14, 2016) and Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., 2016 WL 3660720 (S.C. July 6, 2016).
  • Courts also created uncertainty regarding who decides availability of class arbitration. Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC v. Scout Petroleum, LLC, 2016 WL 53806 (3d Cir. Jan. 5, 2015) (parties’ incorporation of AAA rules is insufficient to delegate the availability of classwide arbitration to arbitrators); Sandquist v. Lebo Automotive, Inc., 376 P.3d 506 (Cal. July 28, 2016) (arbitrator decides); Dell Web Communities, Inc. v. Carlson, 2016 WL 1178829 (4th Cir. Mar. 28, 2016) (court decides).
  • FAA allows no special treatment for famous athletes. Arbitral awards against Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson, which had been vacated in federal district courts, were un-vacated by federal appellate courts.
  • Finn got under my skinn. The high court in New Hampshire got creative in Finn v. Ballentine Partners, LLC, __ A.3d __, 2016 WL 3268852 (NH June 14, 2016). After finding no avenue for vacating an arbitration award in the FAA, it concluded the FAA’s sections regarding confirming and vacating awards do not apply in state courts and vacated the award under its state arbitration act. Threw me into a tizzy.
  • 7th Circuit supported NRLB on arbitration. The NLRB has ruled that arbitration agreements which prohibit class actions violate the federal labor laws. But, five federal circuit courts have disagreed with the Board. This year, the 7th Circuit stood up for the Board in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., 2016 WL 3029464 (7th Cir. May 26, 2016). Watch for SCOTUS to weigh in on this issue in the near future.
  • Agencies engaged in rule-making aimed at eliminating pre-dispute arbitration clauses in many types of contracts.
    • May 2016: CFPB proposed 2 arbitration rules for financial services industry and received almost 13,000 comments in 90 days. The rules would allow financial consumers to participate in class actions in court, even if the governing agreements call for arbitration generally, and would require providers of arbitration services to submit redacted copies of arbitration pleadings to the CFPB for its continuing monitoring. (The rule is rumored to be finalized just before president-elect Trump is inaugurated.)
    • September 2016: the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a rule that will prohibit the use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements in most long term care facilities.
    • October 2016: the Federal Communications Commission indicated that it was developing a proposed rule to address “mandatory arbitration agreements” in contracts between communication service providers and consumers.
    • October 2016: the U.S. Department of Education banned pre-dispute arbitration agreements for all “Direct Loan borrowers.”

Where does that leave us, after this year of significant change? And why do I say the election could undo much of what you just read?

I am no administrative law scholar (this blog is not called RegulationNation, thank goodness), but I do know that these agency rules can be rescinded more easily than an act of Congress or even a precedential holding from SCOTUS. (See http://www.wsj.com/articles/reversing-rule-by-regulation-1479342822.) I predict the Trump Administration will act to roll back some or all of these regulations. (I have not seen any pronouncements from the President-elect, but base my prediction on my general Spidey sense, as well as Mr. Trump’s motions to compel arbitration in litigation against his companies, and his pro-business positions.) I also predict that SCOTUS will again become a 5-4 majority in favor of strict enforcement of arbitration clauses.

And what will our feisty state courts do in reaction to more rigid enforcement of arbitration clauses by SCOTUS and federal agencies? I think they will again get creative with their interpretations of state contract laws and even their application of the Federal Arbitration Act in state courts (a la Finn), just like was happening before SCOTUS issued the Concepcion decision. There was less of a reason for the state courts to do that over the past year, as they saw the federal government regulation stepping in. Watch this blog to see if my predictions are accurate… And feel free to send me your thoughts if you disagree!