In Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, No. 12-125 (2013), the Supreme Court ruled that an arbitrator can require a class action arbitration.
The gist of the case is that Sutter, a pediatrician, had a fee-for-services contract, which required arbitration for all contractual disputes. When Oxford failed to promptly pay him and other physicians, Sutter filed a class action in New Jersey. After filing, the court compelled arbitration. The arbitrator concluded that the contract called for class action arbitration. Sutter appealed to higher courts, but these appeals were denied.
The Supreme Court explained its decision as follows. First, the parties agreed to go to arbitration in their contract. Second, an arbitrator looks at the contract, makes a decision based on the contractual language, and this decision is binding. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Supreme Court explained that judicial review is limited to whether the arbitrator interpreted the contract, not whether the court agreed with the decision. Consequently, because the arbitrator considered the contract, the arbitrator’s decision stands. They only way to vacate an arbitral decision is when an arbitrator strayed from his task of interpreting the contract. In other words, not when he performed his task poorly.
As a note: In prior decisions (Steelworkers Trilogy/Misco) in the labor context under the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), the Supreme Court had ruled that a contractual language had to explicitly allow class actions in the arbitration clause. Here, the arbitration clause did not do so.
This raises the question of how the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) reconciles with LMRA arbitrations when they are both present. In this case, only the FAA was involved.