The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the denial of a motion to arbitrate where the appellants were not parties to the agreements containing arbitration clauses. The court also concluded that equitable estoppel did not apply to stop the plaintiffs from opposing arbitration.
A group of plaintiffs sued Herbalife, a global nutrition company that operates through a direct sales network of thousands of distributors, and some of Herbalife’s top distributors in a putative class action. The plaintiffs, who were also Herbalife distributors, claimed they were tricked into spending thousands of dollars to attend “circle of success” events and invest in their Herbalife distribution business by false promises of financial success from the top distributors.
Herbalife and the top distributors moved to compel arbitration. They cited arbitration clauses in the distributor agreements signed by some of the named plaintiffs and argued that the incorporation of Herbalife’s rules of conduct, which Herbalife amended to include an arbitration agreement, in the remaining distributor agreements rendered all the plaintiffs’ claims subject to arbitration. The district court disagreed and also refused to transfer the case to a different venue.
The top distributors appealed. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of their motion to compel arbitration. None of the top distributors were parties to the distributor agreements, which were between the plaintiff distributors and Herbalife. The top distributors therefore could not invoke the arbitration clauses. The court also rejected the argument that the district court should have sent the question of arbitrability to an arbitrator. Threshold questions of arbitrability are only questions for the arbitrator if the parties agree to make them so, and in this case there was no agreement between the plaintiff distributors and the defendant top distributors.
The Eleventh Circuit also rejected the top distributors’ argument that the plaintiffs were equitably estopped from opposing arbitration. The plaintiffs’ complaint did not so much as mention a single term from the distributor agreements, which made it difficult to conclude that the plaintiffs relied on those agreements. The agreements were also not so intertwined with the plaintiffs’ claims, which relied on conduct at best one step removed from the agreements, that equitable estoppel applied. The court also concluded that it did not have jurisdiction to review the district court’s decision not to transfer the case to a different venue.
Lavigne v. Herbalife, Ltd., No. 18-14048 (11th Cir. July 29, 2020).