An ArbitrationNation Roadmap: Document subpoenas to third parties

[author: Liz Kramer]

This post is dedicated to a perennial favorite topic: subpoenas for documents in arbitration.  Why this topic and YLSgargoylenot something hot off the presses?  Because SCOTUS has not yet accepted or denied the cert petition in Sutter, and no cases have come out recently that meet my high standards for discussion on this blog (is it about arbitration?  does it lend itself to a fun title?  at least a fun photo?).

If the arbitration involves interstate commerce, the Federal Arbitration Act governs the issuance of subpoenas.  Section 7 authorizes an arbitrator to “summon in writing any person to attend before them or any of them as a witness and in a proper case to bring with him or them any book, record, document, or paper which may be deemed material as evidence in the case.”  9 U.S.C. § 7.  The section also specifies that if the recipient of the subpoena does not cooperate, the issuing party must bring a motion in the federal district court in “the district in which such arbitrators, or a majority of them, are sitting.”  Unlike all other court actions relating to arbitration, you do not need a separate, non-FAA basis for federal jurisdiction to enforce a Section 7 subpoena in federal court.  (If your arbitration does not involve interstate commerce, then the applicable state arbitration act will govern the availability of subpoenas.) 

The language of Section 7 has led to a circuit split on whether the FAA authorizes document discovery from third parties.  The plain text of the statute suggests that documents are only available if they are in the possession of a third-party witness who is testifying during the arbitration hearing (but not available in advance of the hearing without a testifying witness).  And, indeed, that is the interpretation that both the Second and Third Circuits have offered in recent years.  E.g., Life Receivables Trust v. Syndicate 102 of Lloyd’s of London, 549 F.3d 210 (2nd Cir. 2008); Hay Group, Inc. v. E.B.S. Acquisition Corp., 360 F.3d 404 (3d Cir.2004).   The Second Circuit characterized its decision as part of an “emerging rule” and a “growing consensus,” probably due in part to the fact that Justice Alito wrote the Hay Group opinion before joining the Supreme Court.

The only strong opposition comes from a  twelve year old decision from the Eighth Circuit, finding that if an arbitrator has the power to order a third-party to bring documents to a hearing, it must also have the power to order that the documents be produced in advance.  In re Arbitration Between Sec. Life Ins. Co. of Am., 228 F.3d 865, 870-71 (8th Cir.2000).  The Fourth Circuit struck out a middle ground, without the benefit of any of the previously-cited decisions, noting that arbitrators have the power to order third parties to produce documents in advance of the hearing only in cases of special need.  COMSAT Corp. v. Nat’l Sci. Found., 190 F.3d 269, 275 (4th Cir.1999). 

Of course, parties have found creative ways around the rule against pre-hearing discovery from third parties.  For example, arbitrators have conducted mini-hearings, in advance of the full hearing on the merits, for the sole purpose of hearing testimony and/or receiving documents from a third party.  See Alliance Healthcare Services, Inc. v. Argonaut Private Equity, LLC, 804 F. Supp. 2d 808 (N.D. Ill. 2011). 

Assuming the arbitrator has the power to subpoena a third party for documents in advance of the hearing, are there any limits on who those third parties can be?  In particular, can they be outside the state where the arbitration will occur, or more than 100 miles from the hearing site (the limitations in FRCP 45)?  Again, courts are split on whether the geographic limitations of Rule 45 apply in the arbitration context.  A number of courts find the limits do not apply.  E.g., In re Arbitration Between Sec. Life Ins. Co. of Am., 228 F.3d 865, 870-71 (8th Cir.2000); Festus & Helen Stacy Fdn. v. Merrill Lynch, 432 F. Supp. 2d 1375, 1378 (N.D. Ga. 2006).  Other courts hold that the geographic limitations apply equally to arbitration and court subpoenas.  E.g., Legion Ins. Co. v. John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., 2002 WL 537652, at *27–28 (3d Cir. April 11, 2002).   Finally, other courts get around the perceived unfairness of arbitration subpoenas being limited to third parties in a certain geographic radius by using FRCP 45(a)(3)(B) as a gap-filler of sorts, allowing for the issuance of third-party subpoenas outside the federal district where the arbitration hearing will proceed.  See Ferry Holding Corp. v. GIS Marine, LLC, 2012 WL 88196 (E.D. Mo. 2012).

In short, subpoenaing documents from third parties is an area where the law is in flux, so you want to reserve your requests for third parties whose documents are critical and merit the expense of fighting over whether they should be produced. The issuing party must check the precedent in the federal district where the arbitration hearing will take place to see if pre-hearing document discovery is allowed and whether it is restricted to the geographic limits of Rule 45.  If courts in the relevant district have limited the reach of subpoenas for documents, you will need to get creative to get your discovery.  For those who want to object to a subpoena for documents from an arbitrator, you can bring to bear all the usual objections under Rule 45, as well as the unique arbitration-related objections that document discovery from third parties is not available in arbitration.