Doctor's Associates, Inc. v. Distajo

Decision Date28 September 1995
Citation66 F.3d 438
PartiesDOCTOR'S ASSOCIATES, INC., Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Emily DISTAJO, Renato Distajo, Constantino Lamando, Milo Lamando, Jose Alberto Brenes, Alvaro Guerrero, Maria T. Guerrero, Wesam S. Youmaran, Linda Youmaran, Julie Shino, Johnson Shino, Albert Yonan, Leylah Yonan, Louis Loenneke, Mary Ann Bookout, Michael Johnson, Deborah A. Kane, Gregory F. Kane, Bruno Gianinni, Ronald Rothmund, Patricia Rothmund, John S. Papaleo, John A. McCrary, John Gillon, Sonya Smith, Paul Riise, Melissa Riise, and Rhonda Benton, Defendants-Appellants. DOCTOR'S ASSOCIATES, INC., Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Raymond BICKEL and Sandra Bickel, Defendants-Appellants. Dockets 94-9207, 94-9293, 94-9209, and 95-7183.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

David M. Duree, Reinert, Duree & Crane, St. Louis, MO, for defendants-appellants Emily Distajo, Renato Distajo, Constantino Lamando, Milo Lamando, Jose Brenes, Alvaro Guerrero, Maria Guerrero, Wesam Youmaran, Linda Youmaran, Julie Shino, Johnson Shino, Albert Yonan, Leylah Yonan, Louis Loenneke, Mary Ann Bookout, Michael Johnson, Deborah A. Kane, Gregory F. Kane, Bruno Gianinni, Ronald Rothmund, Patricia Rothmund, John S. Papaleo, Raymond Bickel and Sandra Bickel.

Edward E. Angwin, Birmingham, AL, for defendants-appellants John A. McCrary, John Gillon, Sonya Smith, Paul Riise, Melissa Riise and Rhonda Benton.

Nicholas Wocl, Tooher, Puzzuoli & Wocl, Stamford, CT, for all defendants-appellants.

Edward Wood Dunham, Wiggin & Dana, New Haven, CT, for plaintiff-appellee.

Before: MINER, LEVAL and CABRANES, Circuit Judges.

JOSE A. CABRANES, Circuit Judge:

This case is about forum-shopping, by one and all. Doctor's Associates, Inc. ("DAI") is the national franchisor of Subway sandwich shops. DAI and its franchisees entered into standard franchise agreements, which required them to arbitrate all contractual disputes in Bridgeport, Connecticut, under Connecticut law. When problems did arise, however, neither side invoked the arbitration clause. First, DAI directed its wholly owned real-estate leasing companies to bring summary eviction proceedings against the franchisees in local state courts. 1 The franchisees, in turn, scrambled to obtain judgments against DAI in local state courts.

When DAI found itself faced with state court claims around the country, it sought shelter in the arbitration clause of its franchise agreements. Accordingly, it petitioned the federal district court in Connecticut to compel arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act. Before the district court could act, some of the franchisees won state court judgments against DAI. But DAI eventually convinced the district court to enjoin the franchisees from pursuing their state actions--even from enforcing judgments already entered--and to send the parties to Bridgeport to resolve their disputes around the arbitral table.

On appeal, we are presented with several questions relating to the Federal Arbitration Act: (1) whether a district court has subject matter jurisdiction over a petition to compel arbitration where there is complete diversity among all the parties to the arbitration agreement (all of whom are joined as parties in the petition), but where other, nondiverse parties have been joined as defendants in a parallel state action involving the same underlying dispute; (2) whether the district court should have accorded preclusive effect to various state court judgments entered in Alabama, Illinois, and North Carolina courts; (3) whether an arbitration clause is void for "lack of mutuality" under Connecticut law if it requires only one party to submit disputes to arbitration; (4) whether a party to an arbitration agreement waives its right to compel arbitration when it litigates substantial issues through an alter ego; and (5) whether a district court or an arbitrator should decide whether a party was fraudulently induced to assent to an arbitration agreement.

The district court found complete diversity, refused to accord preclusive effect to the state court judgments, found that the arbitration clause did not lack mutuality, held that DAI had not waived its right to arbitrate regardless of whether its leasing affiliates, which brought the court proceedings, were its alter egos, and left the question of fraudulent inducement to the arbitrators. As discussed below, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

I. FACTS

Doctor's Associates, Inc. ("DAI"), a Florida corporation, is the national franchisor of "Subway" sandwich shops. DAI entered into identical franchise agreements with each of the defendant franchisees (the "Franchisees"). 2 Each agreement contains an identical arbitration clause, which provides that any claim arising out of or relating to the franchise agreement must be arbitrated in Bridgeport, Connecticut, under the Commercial Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association. According to the arbitration clause, no party may take legal action against the other in connection with the franchise agreement without first attempting to arbitrate the dispute. 3

DAI requires each franchisee to sublease its premises from one of several real-estate leasing companies that are wholly owned by DAI. Each sublease contains a "cross-default" provision, whereby any breach of the franchise agreement by the franchisee constitutes a breach of the sublease. 4 According to the deposition testimony of one of its own officers, DAI wanted its leasing affiliate to be the franchisees' sublessor to obtain greater leverage over them in the event of a dispute.

A. The District Court Proceedings in Doctor's Associates, Inc. v. Distajo (Nos. 94-9207, 94-9209, 94-9293)

From 1991 through 1993, various disputes arose between DAI and the several franchisees. DAI never filed any demands for arbitration, despite its claims that the franchisees had breached the franchise agreements. Instead, DAI directed its leasing companies to invoke the cross-default provisions of the subleases, and to institute eviction proceedings in state courts against each franchisee.

In response to these eviction proceedings, each of the franchisees filed a state court action claiming, inter alia, fraud and breach of contract by DAI, its leasing companies, and several of DAI's officers and agents.

According to the franchisees, DAI uses this subleasing arrangement to circumvent the arbitration clause in the franchise agreements. They argue that the leasing companies are mere shells, or alter egos, of DAI. It is undisputed that the leasing companies are wholly owned by DAI, that they have no assets or net income, and that DAI decides when the leasing companies will file eviction proceedings. Pursuant to the sublease, the franchisee must pay rent directly to the actual landlord; no rent is paid to the leasing company. According to the franchisees, DAI has taken the position that the arbitration clause in the franchise agreement is not binding on its leasing companies, because they are not parties to that agreement. The franchisees claim also that the leasing companies have asserted the right to proceed with eviction lawsuits against the franchisees even if the franchisees file arbitration demands against DAI. Thus, DAI allegedly brought eviction lawsuits through its leasing companies to pressure its franchisees into resolving disputes, but invokes the arbitration clause to protect itself against litigation initiated by the franchisees.

DAI responded to each state lawsuit brought by the franchisees by serving a demand for arbitration pursuant to the franchise agreement. When the franchisees refused to arbitrate their disputes, DAI filed petitions to compel arbitration, pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. Sec. 4, in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. All sixteen cases were eventually consolidated before Chief Judge Peter C. Dorsey. Before the district court ruled on DAI's petitions, the state courts in Alabama, Illinois, and North Carolina entered judgments in favor of the franchisees in Cases 1-12 and 15-16.

In the district court, DAI contended that the franchisees were bound by the franchise agreement to submit any disputes with DAI to arbitration in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before instituting judicial proceedings. The franchisees responded by seeking dismissal of DAI's petitions on several grounds, including, inter alia: (1) lack of subject matter jurisdiction, due to incomplete diversity of the parties; and (2) collateral estoppel, based on the intervening state court judgments. The district court rejected each of these contentions in a ruling dated September 29, 1994. The district court simultaneously rejected DAI's motion to enjoin the franchisees from pursuing parallel state court proceedings, on the grounds that the requested injunction did not fall within any of the narrow exceptions to the Anti-Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2283.

On November 10, 1994, the district court granted DAI's petitions to compel arbitration. In doing so, the court rejected several defenses raised by the franchisees, including the following: (1) that the arbitration clause was void for lack of mutuality; (2) that DAI had waived arbitration by virtue of its leasing companies' prosecution of eviction lawsuits; and (3) that DAI had fraudulently misrepresented the scope of the arbitration clause in the franchise agreement. The court held that the arbitrators, not the court, should determine whether the leasing companies were "alter egos" of DAI, and then address the question whether DAI had fraudulently misrepresented the scope of the arbitration agreement.

When the franchisees continued to pursue their state court actions, DAI obtained a temporary restraining order from the district court on November 22, 1994, preventing them from participating in the parallel state proceedings. On December 14, 1994, the district court entered a...

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