The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas recently compelled arbitration despite an insured’s claim that the operative arbitration clause was unconscionable because it required the arbitration panel to comprise “persons employed or engaged in a senior position in Insurance underwriting or claims.” In a rare decision, the court also compelled arbitration with respect to brokers who created the proposal for the policy at issue even though they were not parties to the arbitration clause because the plaintiff’s claim against the brokers was inherently intertwined with and relied on the policy that was subject to the arbitration agreement.
Four commercial buildings owned by the Bhandara Family Living Trust were damaged during Hurricane Harvey. The buildings were insured by a policy that allocated premiums and liabilities among a number of insurers, including Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s. The trust made a claim under the policy. When the claim was denied, the trust filed suit against the insurers and brokers who prepared the proposal for the policy in Texas state court. The trust claimed that the insurers had breached the policy, acted in bad faith, and violated the Texas Insurance Code and that the brokers had violated the code by failing to disclose an allegedly unconscionable arbitration clause in the policy. The insurers invoked the arbitration clause, but the trust refused to arbitrate and asserted the clause was unconscionable. The insurers removed the case to federal court under the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.
The district court compelled arbitration with respect to the trust’s claims against both the insurers and brokers.
The trust claimed that the arbitration clause was unconscionable and therefore null and void because it provided that “the Arbitration Tribunal shall consist of persons employed or engaged in a senior position in Insurance underwriting or claims.” The trust argued that the clause “guarantee[d] a biased decisionmaker” and that the clause’s invocation of New York law precluded damages permitted by Texas law. The court rejected that argument. It distinguished cases in which the arbitrators had to be selected from a list pre-selected by one side and noted that, in this case, the trust was free to select an arbitrator. The arbitrator would not be inherently biased merely because they were engaged in a senior position in underwriting or claims: The trust was “not limited to employees of insurance companies.” It “could select a broker or agent in a senior position in a business that represents insureds in making claims,” for example.
The trust’s challenge to New York law and the limits that the choice-of-law provision imposed on damages was “collateral to and [did] not call into question the parties’ agreement” to arbitrate. Regardless, the trust was free to make its arguments on that front to the arbitrator.
With respect to the claims against the brokers, the court noted that nonsignatories are rarely allowed to invoke an arbitration clause. However, one situation in which it is appropriate to allow a nonsignatory to do so is when “the signatory to a written agreement containing an arbitration clause must rely on the terms of the written agreement in asserting its claims against the nonsignatory.” In this case, the trust’s claims against the insurers and brokers were “substantially intertwined.” Indeed, the core claim against the brokers concerned the allegedly unconscionable arbitration clause itself. “Because [the trust’s] claim against the Broker Defendants relie[d] on and presumes the existence of the terms of the Policy, arbitration [was] required” as to that claim.
Bhandara Family Living Trust v. Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London et al., No. 4:19-cv-00968 (S.D. Tx. February 20, 2020).