April 20, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Refusal to Pay Arbitration Fees Justified District Court’s Removal of Stay

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. v. Cahill on Tuesday, May 26, 2015.

Todd Cahill was a former sales associate for Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc., who agreed not to solicit or recruit other Pre-Paid sales associates during his employment or for two years after termination. Cahill left Pre-Paid to join another marketing company, and Pre-Paid contended he misused trade secret information and solicited other Pre-Paid employees for work at his new company. Pre-Paid brought suit in Oklahoma state court, and Cahill removed the action to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, claiming diversity jurisdiction. Cahill then moved to stay the proceedings pending arbitration, which motion was granted. Pre-Paid initiated arbitration proceedings before the American Arbitration Association (AAA). Pre-Paid paid its share of arbitration fees but Cahill did not. Cahill received repeated warnings from the Director of ADR Services at the AAA that arbitration would be suspended and terminated if he failed to pay, but neither paid his fees nor requested other relief. Eventually, the Director terminated arbitration. Pre-Paid petitioned the district court to remove the stay, and the district court granted the motion.

Cahill appealed the lifting of the stay, arguing the Tenth Circuit had jurisdiction under 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(1)(A). Pre-Paid moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, and, if the Tenth Circuit found it had jurisdiction, urged the court to affirm the lifting of the stay.

The Tenth Circuit first analyzed its jurisdiction. Although it generally does not have jurisdiction to review non-final orders, the Federal Arbitration Act provides an exception for orders that refuse to stay proceedings pending arbitration. The Circuit found that the order lifting the stay was essentially an order “refusing a stay,” since the district court declined to continue enforcing the stay after arbitration proceedings were terminated. The Tenth Circuit declined to draw a distinction between a district court refusing to apply a stay and a court refusing to continue a stay once arbitration failed. The Circuit likewise found that Cahill’s request to continue the stay was initiated under § 3 of the FAA.

Turning to the merits of the appeal, the Tenth Circuit found the district court properly lifted the stay. The Circuit found that arbitration had “been had in accordance with the terms of the agreement” because the arbitration clause in Cahill’s employment agreement required the parties to pay their share of fees in accordance with AAA rules. Since Cahill failed to pay his fees and the Director terminated the arbitration proceedings, the Tenth Circuit found arbitration had “been had” pursuant to § 3. Similarly, the Tenth Circuit found support for the district court’s actions under § 3’s language regarding default. There was no dispute regarding Cahill’s failure to pay the arbitration fees. Cahill never asserted an inability to pay, nor did he ask for a modified payment schedule or request for Pre-Paid to pay his arbitration fees. Instead, he allowed arbitration to terminate by refusing to pay the fees. The Tenth Circuit found this failure to pay constituted “default” under § 3. Cahill contended the arbitrators were the correct party to determine default, but the Circuit disagreed, finding the district court’s decision to remove the stay appropriate in light of Cahill’s refusal to pay fees. Even assuming the default decision was left to the arbitrators, the Tenth Circuit found that the arbitrators determined Cahill was in default by refusing to pay the fees.

The Tenth Circuit found it had jurisdiction to hear the appeal and affirmed the district court’s lifting of the stay.

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