Opinion analysis: Court rebukes West Virginia court over arbitration stance
on Feb 22, 2012 at 9:21 am
The Supreme Court took the relatively unusual step yesterday of summarily reversing in a case from a state court, Marmet Health Care, Inc. v. Brown, this one an arbitration dispute from the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. The case arises out of suits contending that patient deaths were attributable to nursing home negligence. The nursing homes attempted to refer the cases to arbitration, relying on boilerplate arbitration clauses in their contracts with their patients. The West Virginia court adopted a state common-law rule holding that as a “matter of public policy” in West Virginia, it was unacceptable for disputes about personal injury or wrongful death in West Virginia to be covered by pre-dispute arbitration agreements.
It is easy to understand why a court might accept that as a reasonable policy perspective. The difficulty is the challenge of reconciling it with the Supreme Court’s understanding of the Federal Arbitration Act as preempting any state-law rule that undermines the enforceability of arbitration agreements. The problem for the West Virginia court is that the tack it chose to adopt was not the difficult one of explaining how its rule is consistent with the Supreme Court’s decisions, but the hopeless one of arguing that the Supreme Court’s decisions are incorrect. Thus, the West Virginia court characterized the Supreme Court’s doctrine on arbitration as “tendentious” and “created from whole cloth.” Hence, the state court concluded, “Congress did not intend for the FAA to be, in any way, applicable to personal injury or wrongful death suits.”
Given the state court’s firmly unambiguous rejection of the Supreme Court’s precedents on the subject (repeatedly reaffirmed in the last twelve months, in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion and CompuCredit v. Greenwood), the Supreme Court’s options were limited. Apparently, the Justices concluded either that oral argument was a waste of time, or that the temerity of the state court’s opinion justified the sterner response of summary reversal.
In any event, the result, to nobody’s surprise, was a brief and unanimous per curiam opinion restating the Supreme Court’s view that federal law preempts any state law purporting to prevent the arbitration “of a particular type of claim.” The case will join the long, and still unbroken, line of FAA cases enforcing arbitration clauses. The day presumably will come when the Supreme Court will confront an arbitration clause it does not find enforceable, but it didn’t come yesterday.