Applying the doctrine of judicial estoppel, a district court refused to compel arbitration finding that the arbitration clause in a reinsurance agreement was unenforceable under a Virginia statute that voided a mandatory arbitration clause in an “insurance contract.” On appeal, the issue was whether an arbitrator can be delegated the authority to decide if a contract is an “insurance contract” under the statute. The Fourth Circuit held that the district court properly refused to compel arbitration, but committed reversible error by applying judicial estoppel to reach that conclusion.
The contract here was a Reinsurance Participation Agreement (“RPA”). An arbitration clause in the RPA had a “delegation provision” granting authority to resolve all questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator. This included the right to decide if the RPA was an “insurance contract” under Virginia law, and, in turn, whether the arbitration clause was void. The Fourth Circuit narrowed the issue to the enforceability of the delegation provision itself and applied a two-prong test: (1) did the insured specifically challenge the delegation provision, not the entire arbitration clause; and if so (2) was the provision unenforceable “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity.”
The Court held that the first prong was satisfied because the insured challenged “any” arbitration provision in the RPA, and asserted that the delegation provision was unenforceable under Virginia law. It explained that, to grant an arbitrator the authority to answer a “core” question of Virginia insurance law—whether a contract is an “insurance contract”—would undermine “the precise outcome Virginia sought to prevent” in enacting the statute; namely, guaranteeing insureds access to Virginia courts. Thus, the Court found that delegation provisions in even “putative” insurance contracts governed by Virginia law are invalid, “at least to the extent such provisions authorize an arbitrator to resolve whether the contract at issue is an ‘insurance contract.’”
Finally, the Court held that the district court abused its discretion in applying judicial estoppel to preclude the insurer from arguing on the merits that the RPA was not an “insurance contract” for purposes of Virginia law. The Court therefore remanded the case for full briefing on that issue.