By Anthony Biraglia

In the civil case of Chorley Enterprises v. Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc., the Fourth Circuit vacated a Maryland district court’s decision to hold a jury trial on a purportedly ambiguous contract provision, rather than compel arbitration, in a franchise dispute between two sets of plaintiffs and Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants (“Dickey’s”). The Court determined that it could resolve the purported ambiguity in the contract provision as a matter of law, and found that the “clear and unambiguous language” of the provisions mandated that Dickey’s common law claims be arbitrated, while the plaintiff’s Maryland Franchise Law claims go forward in Maryland district court. In a published opinion released on August 5, 2015, the Court stated that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) requires this result despite the inefficiency of piecemeal litigation in multiple forums.

Arbitration or Litigation? Pre-Trial Maneuvering

Both sets of plaintiffs (collectively “Franchisees”) were franchisees operating Dickey’s restaurants in Maryland. The first set of plaintiffs, Matthew Chorley, Carla Chorley, and Chorley Enterprises (collectively “Chorleys”), were involved in a dispute with Dickey’s over the franchise’s management. Dickey’s brought arbitration proceedings, alleging common law breach of contract claims for the franchise and development agreements between Dickey’s and the Chorleys. In turn, the Chorleys brought suit in federal court seeking to enjoin arbitration and declare the arbitration provision unenforceable. The Chorley’s also claimed that Dickey’s fraudulently misrepresented start-up and operating costs in violation of the Maryland Franchise Regulation and Disclosure Law (“Maryland Franchise Law”). Dickey’s filed a similar set of claims against the second set of plaintiffs, Justin Trouard and Jessica Shelton (collectively “Trouard and Shelton”). Trouard and Shelton responded in the same fashion as the Chorleys by filing suit in Maryland district court. Dickey’s filed motions to compel arbitration in both matters. The district court consolidated these two cases to decide the pre-trial motions because the provisions in question were virtually identical.

The Franchisees agreed to similar contracts with Dickey’s that included several forum selection provisions, two of which were at issue here. The first was an arbitration provision (“the Arbitration Clause”) in which the parties agreed to arbitrate all claims arising out of the agreement at the American Arbitration Association nearest to Dickey’s headquarters in Texas. The second was a state specific provision (“the Maryland Clause”) that created an exception to arbitration provision with regard to claims under the Maryland Franchise Law. The agreement provided that the Franchisees could file such claims in any competent court in Maryland. In the district court, both the Franchisees and Dickey’s presented an all-or-nothing argument. The Franchisees argued that the Maryland Clause fundamentally conflicted with the Arbitration Clause such that the Arbitration Clause was void, whereas Dickey’s argued that the Maryland Clause merely preserved the right to bring a Maryland Franchise Law claim in either arbitration or in court.

The district court found both the Franchisees’ and Dickey’s arguments to be plausible. Thus, it ordered a jury trial to determine which, if any, issues the parties agreed to arbitrate. The parties filed interlocutory appeals challenging the denial of their motions.

The FAA Requires Arbitration of Claims that Parties Agree to Arbitrate

Section 2 of the FAA provides that arbitration clauses may only be invalidated on “such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” Courts will compel arbitration under § 4 of the FAA if (i) the parties have entered into valid agreement to arbitrate and (ii) the dispute in question falls within the scope of the agreement. If a federal court finds both of these elements, it must enforce the agreement as written. To make these findings, the Court applied Maryland contract law, which required it to look at the intent of the parties to determine whether the agreement was valid with respect to the Arbitration Clause.

The Fourth Circuit found that the Franchisees and Dickey’s intended to arbitrate Dickey’s common law claims. The claims arose out of the relationship between the parties, and thus were within the scope of the Arbitration Clause. Because the Court found the intent to arbitrate, which was evidence of a valid agreement, and the claims were within the scope of the agreement, the Court compelled arbitration on Dickey’s common law claims. In doing so, the Court rejected the Franchisees’ claim that an adverse arbitration decision would be prejudicial to their Maryland Franchise Law claims, as well as a claim that the Maryland Clause trumped the entire Arbitration Clause. Supreme Court precedent instructed that the FAA requires piecemeal litigation in cases where some claims were subject to arbitration and some were not.

On the other hand, the Court agreed with the Franchisees that the Maryland clause trumped as it pertains to Maryland Franchise Law claims. The agreement provided that the Franchisees could bring Maryland Franchise Law claims in Maryland courts notwithstanding the Arbitration Clause. The Court determined that the plain language of the agreement provided that Maryland Franchise Law claims should go forward in the Maryland district court.

Dickey’s also argued that the FAA preempted the Maryland Clause. The Court rejected this argument on the basis that the FAA preemption upon which Dickey’s relied applied to state law that prevented arbitration of certain claims rather than contractual provisions.

Vacated and Remanded

Because the FAA requires claims that can be arbitrated to be arbitrated even if there are other related claims that may not be arbitrated, the Court vacated the district court’s decision to order a jury trial to resolve an ambiguous contract provision and decided the dispute as a matter of law. The Court remanded to the district court the issue of whether the stay the proceedings in that court pending arbitration.