Plaintiff Gaspar Salas, a former employee of defendant GE Oil & Gas, brought suit in 2014 in Texas federal court against GE for discrimination and retaliation. The court granted GE’s motion to compel arbitration, and the case was dismissed in December 2014. The parties did not move forward with arbitration, and in February 2016, plaintiff filed a motion to compel arbitration in the same court. After a teleconference on the motion, the court issued an order, reopening the suit and withdrawing its prior order compelling arbitration. GE moved for reconsideration, which was denied and GE then appealed.
On appeal, GE argued that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to reopen the case, since it had previously dismissed the suit. Thus, according to GE, the court could exercise jurisdiction only to the extent of enforcing an arbitration award. That the district court fully dismissed the case, explained the Fifth Circuit, is not necessarily fatal to the court’s exercise of jurisdiction. Under the Federal Arbitration Act, however, district courts may not intervene in the arbitral process “beyond the determination as to whether an agreement to arbitrate exists and enforcement of that agreement.” Here, the Fifth Circuit noted that the district court did not determine whether the parties’ agreement to arbitrate was valid nor did it enforce that arbitration agreement. Instead, the district court had found “that the parties had ‘failed’ to arbitrate and withdrew its prior order compelling arbitration.” Thus, the Fifth Circuit remanded the case for further proceedings, but limited the district court’s jurisdiction to determining only whether an agreement to arbitrate still exists and enforcement of that agreement. , No. 16-20379 (5th Cir. May 12, 2017).