This case involved an underlying arbitration before an arbitration panel operating under the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) rules, which was brought by Judith and Kenneth Goldman against their financial advisor, Barry Guariglia, and his employer Citigroup Global Markets. The Goldmans had followed their investment adviser when he left his prior employer, Merrill Lynch, and went to Citigroup. In the arbitration, they claimed that when they transferred their account to Citigroup, they were subjected to a “devastating margin call” that wiped out their retirement savings. After 10 days of evidence and argument, and after the Goldmans submitted their case in chief, Citigroup moved to dismiss for lack of evidence. The FINRA arbitration panel dismissed the case, noting that “[w]hile all the claims were quite stridently argued, not a single claim was proven to be true by evidence.”

The Goldmans then filed a motion to vacate the arbitration award in a Pennsylvania federal court, and Citigroup moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which was granted by the court. In its decision, the court noted that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction because the Federal Arbitration Act does not itself create federal subject matter jurisdiction, and that the parties were not diverse, and thus, federal question jurisdiction would be required for the court to consider a motion to vacate an arbitration award. The Pennsylvania federal court found that the Goldmans failed to raise a federal question and simply sought to “assert the same claims they unsuccessfully brought in their arbitration.” The Goldmans then appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

In their appeal, the Goldmans asserted that a district court can “look through a motion to vacate” at the underlying subject matter, relying on footnote in a prior Third Circuit decision, Goldman Sachs v. Athena Venture Partners, which stated that the district court has subject matter jurisdiction over a motion to vacate because the arbitration included federal securities law claims. The Third Circuit, however, rejected that argument, and found that it was not bound to follow the footnote in that case, noting that the footnote was an “unexamined exercise of jurisdiction and so is without precedential effect” and that the “drive-by jurisdictional ruling” in Athena goes against Third Circuit precedent. Thus, the Third Circuit affirmed the Pennsylvania federal court’s order dismissing the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Goldman et al. v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., et al., No. 15-2345 (3d Cir. Aug. 22, 2016).