Sixth Circuit Compels Arbitration in Putative Class Action between Shell Oil and Ohio Landowners
Plaintiff entered into a lease agreement with Defendants (Shell Oil entities) governing extraction of oil and gas from his five-acre property located in Guernsey County, Ohio. The agreement provided a signing bonus to Plaintiff of $5,000 per acre, contingent upon Shell’s timely verification that he possessed good title to the property. The lease also contained a broad arbitration clause providing that any dispute under the lease was to be resolved by binding arbitration. Plaintiff brought suit, individually and on behalf of other landowners having similar contracts with Shell, for breach of contract after Shell allegedly failed to pay the signing bonus. The District Court for the Southern District of Ohio subsequently denied Shell’s motion to compel arbitration, and Shell appealed.
The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded, compelling arbitration and a directing the district court to decide whether the lease allowed for class-wide arbitration. The panel found that the district court failed to address the threshold issue of who decides arbitrability and further reasoned that Plaintiff did not attack the enforceability of the “specific arbitration clause” but rather “argued that much of the contract, which happens to include the arbitration clause, is unenforceable.” In so finding, the panel determined that the arbitration clause was triggered at signing, leading to the applicability of the severability doctrine and the determination that an arbitrator must consider the issue first. As to the class-wide arbitration question, the Panel reasoned that because the parties did not identify a provision in the contract that clearly and unmistakably gave the arbitrator the power to decide the matter, and in light of “the importance of this issue to the case, given that the class could include hundreds of Ohio landowners,” that question would be for the district court to decide upon remand. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Moore opined that the district court was the proper body to decide whether the dispute should be arbitrated in light of the lease agreement’s two distinct triggering events – the signing of the agreement and the payment of the bonus. As such, Judge Moore opined that only after payment of the bonus would the arbitration clause apply.
Rogers v. Swepi LP, No. 18-3229 (6th Cir. Dec. 10, 2018).