Sixth Circuit: It’s a Go on Plaintiff’s Claims Despite Arbitration Clause
The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed in part a district court’s grant of a stay pending arbitration, finding that as non-parties to the underlying arbitration agreement, defendants could not stay the plaintiff’s action against them by arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration agreement. AtriCure, Inc. v. Meng, Case No. 19-4067 (6th Cir. Aug. 27, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Guy, J., dissenting).
AtriCure invested millions into developing medical devices that treat a serious degenerative heart condition known as atrial fibrillation. The company sells these products to hospitals throughout the world. In the mid-2000s, AtriCure sought to enter the Chinese market. In order to do so, it needed a Chinese agent. Dr. Jian Meng approached AtriCure about partnering with one of his companies to serve as AtriCure’s Chinese distributor. AtriCure eventually entered into a relationship with Meng’s company, ZenoMed.
In 2015, AtriCure discovered that another of Meng’s companies, Med-Zenith, was attempting to market a knockoff version of one of AtriCure’s medical devices. AtriCure opted to continue the relationship with ZenoMed, and in 2016, AtriCure and ZenoMed entered into a distribution agreement. However, in 2017, AtriCure learned that Med-Zenith was attempting to develop more counterfeit versions of AtriCure’s devices. As a result, AtriCure allowed the distribution agreement to expire and demanded that ZenoMed return its inventory.
AtriCure then sued Meng and Med-Zenith in the Southern District of Ohio, alleging improper manufacturing and selling of dangerous counterfeit productions, as well as various state law claims. AtriCure also brought an arbitration demand under the distribution agreement against ZenoMed. Meng and Med-Zenith sought to stay the federal lawsuit, arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration clause in the distribution agreement under equitable estoppel and agency theories. After the district court denied the motion, Meng appealed.
The Sixth Circuit explained that after the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2009 ruling in Arthur Andersen LLP v. Carlisle, circuit courts are obligated to look to relevant state common law to decide when nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. As a result, the blanket federal presumption favoring arbitration even against nonparties was no longer applicable. Now, courts must examine state law to determine whether nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. The Court examined Ohio contract law to determine that a nonparty cannot enforce an arbitration clause unless it is an intended third-party beneficiary. The Court rejected Meng and Med-Zenith’s equitable estoppel arguments, finding that under Ohio law, AtriCure’s state law claims did not seek to enforce the distribution agreement against Meng and Med-Zenith, or rely on any theory that they owed contractual duties to AtriCure notwithstanding their nonparty status. Finally, the Court remanded the question of whether Meng’s agency argument could prevail by determining if he was acting as an agent of ZenoMed when he engaged in the conduct AtriCure complained about in the separate arbitration.
In dissent, Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr. argued that Meng “unambiguously sought a ‘stay under Section 3 of the [Federal Arbitration Act]’” (9 U.S.C.). In his view, the Sixth Circuit was inappropriately rewriting pro-arbitration state laws under the banner of Arthur Andersen v. Carlisle.