By Daniel Stratton
On March 8, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Peabody Holding Company, LLC v. United Mine Workers of America, vacating the district court’s decision. The Fourth Circuit held that under the complete arbitration rule, an arbitrator handling a labor dispute between Peabody Holding and United Mine Workers of America should have been allowed to finish resolving both the liability and remedial phases of the dispute before the matter was moved to federal court.
United Mine Workers and Peabody Coal Company Enter into Job Opportunity Agreement
In 2007, the United Mine Workers of America and Peabody Coal company entered into a Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Job Opportunities (“Jobs MOU”). Peabody Coal signed the agreement on behalf of itself and its parent company, Peabody Holding. The purpose of the Jobs MOU was to require non-unionized companies within the Peabody corporation to give preference to coal miners who either worked for or were laid off by Peabody Coal with regards to hiring treatment. The Jobs MOU included an arbitration clause that required all disputes involving the MOU to be submitted to an arbitrator, whose decisions would be final and binding.
That same year, Peabody Energy Corp., the ultimate corporate parent of Peabody Holding, Peabody Coal, and another company, Black Beauty Coal Company, began a process to spinoff part of its mining operation into a new entity known as Patriot Coal Corporation. Peabody Coal was spun off into Patriot. All of the Peabody subsidiaries that became part of Patriot had been signatories to the Jobs MOU. The only subsidiary that had been a signer to the Jobs MOU that was not spun off into Patriot was Black Beauty. At the completion of the spinoff, Peabody Coal had no corporate relationship with Peabody Holding or Black Beauty.
In 2008, Black Beauty hired United Minerals Company to assist with mining operations on Black Beauty’s property. Both United Minerals Company and Black Beauty were non-unionized. Shortly after United Minerals Company began working with Black Beauty, the United Mine Workers of America sent a letter to Peabody Energy and Peabody Holding explaining that Peabody Holding and Black beauty were still bound by the Jobs MOU. Peabody disagreed, arguing that after Peabody Coal had been spun off, the rest of the Peabody corporate family no longer had any obligation under the Jobs MOU.
Peabody initially argued that this dispute with United Mine Workers was not arbitrable, an argument that the Fourth Circuit rejected in 2012. After being sent back to arbitration, the union and Peabody agreed to bifurcate the dispute into separate liability and remedy phases. The arbitrator ruled that the Jobs MOU remained in effect despite the fact that Peabody Coal had no corporate relationship with Peabody Holding. The arbitrator declined to rule on whether or not Black Beauty was actually exempt from the Jobs MOU, deferring its decision on that question until the remedy stage.
Peabody and United Mine Workers Take Their Dispute to the Courts
Peabody sought to vacate the arbitrator’s decision, filing an declaratory judgment action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. At the same time, the United Mine Workers filed a counterclaim to enforce the decision by the arbitrator. Under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), some courts viewed their jurisdiction as being limited to “review of final arbitration awards,” while others believed that Section 301 provided “sweeping jurisdiction.” The district court ultimately declined to weigh in on that debate, instead noting that because the liability portion of the arbitration was finished, it was final and therefore reviewable. The district court found in favor of the union, holding that the arbitrator was right to find the Jobs MOU still valid. Peabody and its subsidiaries appealed the district court’s decision. After the parties briefed the appeal, the Fourth Circuit asked for additional briefing on whether the arbitrator’s decision was even properly before the circuit, because the arbitration was not yet complete.
The Limits and Scope of the Complete Arbitration Rule
Under Section 301 of LMRA, federal district courts have jurisdiction over suits involving contract violations between employers and unions. The Supreme Court has long held that Section 301 can be used to seek enforcement of an arbitration award made under a collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration clause. As a threshold matter however, a court must determine that the award is final and binding. Many courts have held this to mean that an arbitrator must have ruled on both liability and remedies before the decision can be reviewable.
Some judicial decision viewed the complete arbitration rule as a restriction on federal jurisdiction. Other decisions had focused on Section 301’s broad language, and have viewed the complete arbitration rule to be “only a prudential limitation on judicial involvement” in an arbitrated labor dispute.
The Fourth Circuit Finds that the Arbitration Decision was sent to the Courts Too Soon
The Fourth Circuit noted that several courts which view the complete arbitration rule in jurisdictional terms still concede that there are exceptions to the rule in extreme cases. Based on this, the Fourth Circuit noted that this necessarily meant that the complete arbitration rule only constituted a prudential limitation. The Court also noted many policy rationales for the complete arbitration rule were the same as those used for strictly jurisdictional relatives. Like the rules that require a district court to enter a final judgment or order before an appellate court can review the case, the complete arbitration rule promotes the same goals of preventing “piecemeal litigation and repeated appeals.” Applying the complete arbitration rule also helps prevent a party from using courts to delay the arbitration, the Fourth Circuit noted.
In terms of actually applying the complete arbitration rule, the Fourth Circuit noted that the application was straightforward. Generally, when an arbitrator decides liability and “reserves jurisdiction to decide remedial questions” later, a federal court should wait to review until all questions have been resolved. The Court was unpersuaded by Peabody’s arguments that the liability phase was final and thus reviewable. The Fourth Circuit noted that such a division was sensible and common. Just because the parties decided to split their dispute did not change the fact that they agreed to submit the entire dispute to the arbitrator.
The Fourth Circuit also quickly dismissed Peabody’s arguments that reviewing the liability portion now would promote efficiency. Such efficiency arguments could potentially be applied to virtually any case, the court noted, before explaining that by waiting until after the remedy portion was resolved the court was actually promoting efficiency. This was because the parties could still reach a settlement at some point, making a review of the liability portion moot. The Fourth Circuit concluded by explaining that arbitration is a matter of contract, and as such the parties should be able to design an arbitral process that best suits the needs of the parties.
The Fourth Circuit Remands the Case Back to the Arbitrator
The Fourth Circuit ultimately held that the arbitrator’s decision had been prematurely sent to the courts, and remanded the case back to the district court to remand the case back to the arbitrator to continue the arbitration.