The presumption in favor of arbitration is well-known. The deference to be afforded to agreements to arbitrate is universally recognized by state and federal courts, and has long been enshrined in the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and similar state statutes. However, this deference is limited where it intersects with the equally important and well-known right of parties to their “day in court.” In the recent Century Indemnity Co. v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recognized the tension between these competing interests, and provided a helpful exposition of how to navigate (or better yet, avoid) disputes about whether an agreement to arbitrate exists in the first place.

The Underlying Litigation

          The Century Indemnity decision arose from insurance coverage litigation between, on one hand, Western Asbestos Company and Western MacArthur Company (together “Western”), distributors of products containing asbestos, and on the other hand, Western’s liability carrier, Argonaut Insurance Company (“Argonaut”). Argonaut incurred approximately $2 million in expenses, litigating the extent of its coverage obligations to Western under liability coverage it provided to Western, relative to underlying personal injury claims that had been brought by persons who had allegedly been harmed by asbestos contained in Western’s products.

The Retrocession Dispute

          Argonaut turned to its reinsurer, Century Indemnity Company (“Century”), for reimbursement of a portion of the coverage litigation costs it had paid. Century concluded that Argonaut’s costs were covered under the reinsurance treaties, and reimbursed Argonaut accordingly. Century then turned to its retrocessionaire, Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London (“Lloyd’s”), to recover that portion of the risk Century had ceded to Lloyd’s under retrocessional agreements between them.

          However, Lloyd’s came to a different conclusion than Century had about whether Argonaut’s costs were covered under the reinsurance treaties, and denied Century’s claim under the retrocession agreements on that basis. As a result of the dispute, Century filed suit in Pennsylvania state court, and Lloyd’s removed the case to federal court and moved to compel arbitration of the parties’ dispute under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”).

          Century resisted arbitration on the basis of its assertion that the parties’ retrocession agreements did not contain arbitration clauses. Lloyd’s contended that the agreement to arbitrate was contained in the reinsurance treaties, which were incorporated by reference into the retrocession agreements, and therefore binding on Century vis-à-vis its dispute with Lloyd’s. The federal district court agreed with Lloyd’s, and compelled arbitration.

The Arbitration

          The parties each selected arbitrators, and the party-selected arbitrators then agreed upon a neutral third. The panel heard evidence and arguments and, a by 2-1 ruling (with Century’s selected arbitrator in the minority) excluded certain evidence introduced by Century pertaining to industry custom and the parties’ past course of conduct, which Century had introduced to resolve ambiguity in certain contract provisions. The panel also ruled, by the same 2-1 margin, that the pertinent contract language was unambiguous, and therefore resort to extrinsic evidence such as custom and practice was unwarranted. The panel thus held in Lloyd’s favor, finding that it had no obligation under the retrocession agreements to reimburse Century for any portion of the reinsurance payments Century made to Argonaut.

Back to Court

          Century brought the matter back before the district court, seeking to vacate the arbitrators’ decision on the bases that (1) the matter should not have been referred to arbitration in the first instance because there was no agreement to do so, and (2) the arbitrators’ award was defective on both substantive and procedural grounds. The district court refused to revisit the first issue, which it had already decided in compelling the parties to arbitration. It found, as to the second issue, that the arbitrators’ decision was not in manifest disregard of the law, and on these bases refused to vacate the award. Century appealed these rulings to the Third Circuit.

          The Third Circuit’s decision provides a thorough review of an important threshold arbitration issue, where, as with Century and Lloyd’s, the parties disputed not the scope of an arbitration agreement, but rather its existence. Century made a number of arguments in support of its position that no agreement to arbitrate had been reached between the parties, each of which the Third Circuit found worthy of extended discussion, but which it ultimately rejected in finding in Lloyd’s favor.

The Presumption in Favor of Arbitration

          Both parties recognized the long-standing presumption in favor of arbitration in disputes over whether a particular issue comes within the scope of an agreement to arbitrate. However, Century contended that the initial issue of whether there is a valid agreement to arbitrate is not subject to the presumption in favor of arbitration, but should rather be decided under ordinary state common law contract principles.

          Lloyd’s disagreed, citing Third Circuit precedent which appeared dispositive on the point, as that Court had previously indicated that, “[w]hen determining both the existence and the scope of an arbitration agreement, there is a presumption in favor of arbitrability.” However, the Third Circuit nonetheless agreed with Century that, to the extent its prior ruling suggested that the presumption in favor of arbitrability applies to the question of whether an arbitration agreement exists, it is inconsistent with pertinent precedent from other circuit courts, the United States Supreme Court, and the FAA, which, on its face, only requires parties to arbitrate where they have agreed to do so. The Third Circuit thus held that in determining whether an agreement to arbitrate exists, a court should apply ordinary state contract law principles, and not employ any federal law presumption in favor of arbitration in making that threshold determination.

The Right to a “Day in Court”

          Century argued that, contrary to any presumption in favor of arbitration, a court must employ a more stringent test to determine whether an agreement to arbitrate exists, and should so rule only after an “express and unequivocal” agreement to arbitrate has been demonstrated. Century cited Third Circuit precedent noting that “[b]efore a party to a lawsuit can be ordered to arbitrate and thus be deprived of a day in court, there should be an express, unequivocal agreement to that effect. If there is doubt as to whether such an agreement exists, the matter, upon a proper and timely demand, should be submitted to a jury.”

          Century asserted that it was entitled to a mini-trial on the issue of whether an agreement to arbitrate existed between the parties, and cited a number of previous cases where summary dispositions were denied to parties seeking to establish the existence of an agreement to arbitrate, and thereby compel arbitration under the agreement so established. Century asserted that the “express and unequivocal” language previously employed by the Third Circuit amounted to a substantive requirement, which Lloyd’s had failed to demonstrate, and which thus required reversal of the district court’s decision and remand for a trial on the issue.

          The Third Circuit, however, rejected Century’s argument for such a stringent substantive requirement. First, it noted that the cases Century relied on involved disputed fact issues, thus precluding summary disposition on the issue of whether an agreement to arbitrate existed in those cases. The Court noted that those cases involved issues such as whether an agent was authorized to enter into an agreement on behalf of a principal, or whether a pertinent signature was forged. Such fact issues were not in dispute between Century and Lloyd’s. Rather, the disagreement centered on whether the arbitration agreements in the reinsurance treaties were by their terms incorporated into the retrocession agreements with Lloyd’s, so as to bind the parties just the same as the original contracting parties in the reinsurance treaties.

Narrow Interpretation?

          Century urged that the “express and unequivocal” requirement meant that where an incorporated-by-reference agreement to arbitrate delineated specific parties (the parties to the original agreement to arbitrate), that it had to be read narrowly as only applicable to those parties. It noted that the arbitration agreements in question specifically delineated Argonaut and Insurance Company of North America (Century’s predecessor in interest), and that it therefore could not be enforced against Century by Lloyd’s under an incorporation-by-reference theory, because Lloyd’s was not referenced in the arbitration provision. Lloyd’s argued that no such requirement of narrow interpretation was supported by precedent, and that, if applied, it would impermissibly require more of arbitration agreements than contracts generally under state contract law principles.

          The Third Circuit agreed with Lloyd’s. While it gave credence to Century’s assertion that disputed issues of fact require a trial before parties can be ordered to arbitrate – akin to the summary judgment standard – it nonetheless held that Lloyd’s met the equivalent of a summary judgment standard in demonstrating to the district court that the parties entered into an unambiguous agreement to arbitrate, and that it was entitled to enforcement of that agreement under the FAA. In doing so, the Third Circuit distinguished precedent from other circuits which Century had cited in favor of its “narrow interpretation” theory. The Court thus held, with some rhetorical flourish, that the retrocession agreements required the parties to arbitrate their dispute:

Parties employing . . . general incorporation language . . . . require for the incorporation to be effective, and the courts perform, a certain level of transplantation or translation to resolve the imprecision inherent in general incorporation language.

This imprecision is at the heart of this case. Nevertheless, having considered the agreements at issue here in light of the cases and principles we have discussed, and recognizing that it surely is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile all of these cases, we conclude that the most reasonable, probable, and natural construction of the incorporation-by-reference clause of the retrocessional agreements is to apply the clause to include the arbitration provision of the reinsurance treaties.

Id. at 73.

          The Third Circuit thereafter addressed the remaining issue between the parties in short order, finding that, because the matter was properly referred to arbitration, and because the arbitrators’ decision was not in manifest disregard of the law, Lloyd’s was not obligated to pay any portion of the money Century had paid to Argonaut.

Other challenges to the Panel’s rulings

The Court of Appeals spent little time in rejecting the contention that the arbitrators’ award should have been vacated due to the exclusion of certain evidence as being irrelevant. In addition to the substantial deference accorded arbitrators in this area, the Court noted that the record demonstrated that the panel actually considered all of this evidence in order to determine that it was not relevant rather than simply ignoring the evidence. The Court also rejected the contention that the panel had failed to appropriately apply the follow-the-fortunes doctrine, since the record demonstrated that the payments made by Century to its reinsured were outside the scope of the applicable reinsurance agreements, a recognized exception to the operation of the follow-the-fortunes doctrine.

Conclusion

The Century Indemnity case is instructive on a number of issues, including a good basic background on retrocession, and various nuts and bolts issues relating to the arbitration of reinsurance disputes. However, the decision stands out as particularly helpful on the issue of whether an agreement to arbitrate exists in the first place. The extent to which the Third Circuit Court carefully distinguished similar cases from other circuits indicates that the issues of how to approach the question of whether an arbitration agreement exists, and whether there is any presumption under federal law in favor of finding an agreement to arbitrate, might ultimately come before the United States Supreme Court for review. In the meantime, parties to a dispute (or those who seek to avoid a dispute) over whether an arbitration agreement exists should take notice of the Third Circuit’s thorough analysis.