Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc.
Annotate this Case
537 U.S. 79 (2002)
OCTOBER TERM, 2002
HOWSAM, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS TRUSTEE FOR THE E.
RICHARD HOWSAM, JR., IRREVOCABLE LIFE INSURANCE TRUST DATED MAY 14, 1982
v. DEAN WITTER REYNOLDS, INC.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT
No. 01-800. Argued October 9, 2002-Decided December 10,2002
Per respondent Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc.'s standard client agreement, petitioner Howsam chose to arbitrate her dispute with the company before the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD). NASD's Code of Arbitration Procedure § 10304 states that no dispute "shall be eligible for submission ... where six (6) years have elapsed from the occurrence or event giving rise to the ... dispute." Dean Witter filed this suit, asking the Federal District Court to declare the dispute ineligible for arbitration because it was more than six years old and seeking an injunction to prohibit Howsam from proceeding in arbitration. The court dismissed the action, stating that the NASD arbitrator should interpret and apply the NASD rule. In reversing, the Tenth Circuit found that the rule's application presented a question of the underlying dispute's "arbitrability"; and the presumption is that a court will ordinarily decide an arbitrability question.
Held: An NASD arbitrator should apply the time limit rule to the underlying dispute. Pp. 83-86.
(a) "[A]rbitration is a matter of contract and a party cannot be required to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit." Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Nav. Co., 363 U. S. 574, 582. The question whether parties have submitted a particular dispute to arbitration, i. e., the "question of arbitrability," is "an issue for judicial determination [u]nless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise." AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U. S. 643, 649. The phrase "question of arbitrability" has a limited scope, applicable in the kind of narrow circumstance where contracting parties would likely have expected a court to have decided the gateway matter. But the phrase is not applicable in other kinds of general circumstance where parties would likely expect that an arbitrator would decide the question-" 'procedural' questions which grow out of the dispute and bear on its final disposition," John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Livingston, 376 U. S. 543, 557, and "allegation[s] of waiver, delay, or a like
defense to arbitrability," Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U. S. 1, 24-25. Following this precedent, the application of the NASD rule is not a "question of arbitrability" but an "aspec[t] of the [controversy] which called the grievance procedures into play." John Wiley & Sons, Inc., supra, at 559. NASD arbitrators, comparatively more expert about their own rule's meaning, are comparatively better able to interpret and to apply it. In the absence of any statement to the contrary in the arbitration agreement, it is reasonable to infer that the parties intended the agreement to reflect that understanding. And for the law to assume an expectation that aligns (1) decisionmaker with (2) comparative expertise will help better to secure the underlying controversy's fair and expeditious resolution. Pp. 83-86.
(b) Dean Witter's argument that, even without an antiarbitration presumption, the contracts call for judicial determination is unpersuasive. The word "eligible" in the NASD Code's time limit rule does not, as Dean Witter claims, indicate the parties' intent for the rule to be resolved by the court prior to arbitration. Parties to an arbitration contract would normally expect a forum-based decisionmaker to decide forum-specific procedural gateway matters, and any temptation here to place special antiarbitration weight on the word "eligible" in § 10304 is counterbalanced by the NASD rule that "arbitrators shall be empowered to interpret and determine the applicability" of all code provisions, § 10324. P. 86.
261 F.3d 956, reversed.
BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 87. O'CONNOR, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Alan C. Friedberg argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.
Matthew D. Roberts argued the cause for the Securities and Exchange Commission as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Olson, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Meyer Eisenberg, Jacob H. Stillman, and Mark Pennington.
Kenneth W Starr argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Steven G. Bradbury, Daryl Joseffer,