throbber
Cite as: 568 U. S. ____ (2012)
`
`
`Per Curiam
`SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
`NITRO-LIFT TECHNOLOGIES, L. L. C. v. EDDIE LEE
`
`HOWARD ET AL.
`
`
`
`ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME
`
`
`COURT OF OKLAHOMA
`
`No. 11–1377. Decided November 26, 2012
`
` PER CURIAM.
`State courts rather than federal courts are most fre­
`
`quently called upon to apply the Federal Arbitration Act
`(FAA), 9 U. S. C. §1 et seq., including the Act’s national
`policy favoring arbitration. It is a matter of great im­
`portance, therefore, that state supreme courts adhere to a
`
`correct interpretation of the legislation. Here, the Okla­
`homa Supreme Court failed to do so. By declaring the
`noncompetition agreements in two employment contracts
`null and void, rather than leaving that determination to
`the arbitrator in the first instance, the state court ignored
`a basic tenet of the Act’s substantive arbitration law. The
`decision must be vacated.
`
`
`*
`*
`*
`
`This dispute arises from a contract between petitioner
`Nitro-Lift Technologies, L. L. C., and two of its former
`employees. Nitro-Lift contracts with operators of oil and
`gas wells to provide services that enhance production.
`Respondents Eddie Lee Howard and Shane D. Schneider
`entered a confidentiality and noncompetition agreement
`
`with Nitro-Lift that contained the following arbitration
`clause:
`“‘Any dispute, difference or unresolved question be­
`tween Nitro-Lift and the Employee (collectively the
`“Disputing Parties”) shall be settled by arbitration by
`a single arbitrator mutually agreeable to the Disput­
`ing Parties in an arbitration proceeding conducted in
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`1
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`
`2
`
`
`
`
`NITRO-LIFT TECHNOLOGIES, L. L. C. v. HOWARD
`
` Per Curiam
`
`Houston, Texas in accordance with the rules existing
`at the date hereof of the American Arbitration Associ­
`ation.’” Pet. for Cert. 5.
`After working for Nitro-Lift on wells in Oklahoma, Texas,
`and Arkansas, respondents quit and began working for
`one of Nitro-Lift’s competitors. Claiming that respondents
`had breached their noncompetition agreements, Nitro-Lift
`served them with a demand for arbitration. Respondents
`then filed suit in the District Court of Johnston County,
`Oklahoma, asking the court to declare the noncompetition
`
`agreements null and void and to enjoin their enforcement.
`The court dismissed the complaint, finding that the con­
`
`tracts contained valid arbitration clauses under which an
`arbitrator, and not the court, must settle the parties’
`disagreement.
`
`The Oklahoma Supreme Court retained respondents’
`appeal and ordered the parties to show cause why the
`matter should not be resolved by application of Okla.
`Stat., Tit. 15, §219A (West 2011), which limits the en­
`forceability of noncompetition agreements. Nitro-Lift
`argued that any dispute as to the contracts’ enforceability
`was a question for the arbitrator. It relied for support—
`as it had done before the trial court—upon several of this
`Court’s cases interpreting the FAA, and noted that under
`Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U. S. 440,
`446 (2006), “this arbitration law applies in both state and
`federal courts.” Record in No. 109,003 (Okla.), p. 273.
`
`The Oklahoma Supreme Court was not persuaded. It
`held that despite the “[U. S.] Supreme Court cases on
`which the employers rely,” the “existence of an arbitration
`agreement in an employment contract does not prohibit
`judicial review of the underlying agreement.” 2011 OK 98,
`
`¶15, n. 20, ¶16, 273 P. 3d 20, 26, n. 20, 27. For that prop­
`osition, the court relied on the “exhaustive overview of
`the United States Supreme Court decisions construing the
`Federal Arbitration Act” in Bruner v. Timberlane Manor
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`3
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
` Cite as: 568 U. S. ____ (2012)
`
`
`Per Curiam
`Ltd. Partnership, 2006 OK 90, 155 P. 3d 16, which found
`Supreme Court jurisprudence “not to inhibit our review
`
`of the underlying contract’s validity.” 273 P. 3d, at 26.
`Finding the arbitration clauses no obstacle to its review,
`the court held that the noncompetition agreements were
`“void and unenforceable as against Oklahoma’s public
`policy,” expressed in Okla. Stat., Tit. 15, §219A. 273 P. 3d,
`at 27.
`
`The Oklahoma Supreme Court declared that its decision
`rests on adequate and independent state grounds. Id., at
`
`23–24, n. 5. If that were so, we would have no jurisdiction
`over this case. See Michigan v. Long, 463 U. S. 1032,
`1037–1044 (1983).
`It is not so, however, because the
`court’s reliance on Oklahoma law was not “independent”—
`it necessarily depended upon a rejection of the federal
`claim, which was both “‘properly presented to’” and “‘ad­
`dressed by’” the state court. Howell v. Mississippi, 543
`
`U. S. 440, 443 (2005) (per curiam) (quoting Adams v.
`
`Robertson, 520 U. S. 83, 86 (1997) (per curiam)). Nitro-
`Lift claimed that the arbitrator should decide the con­
`
`tract’s validity, and raised a federal-law basis for that
`claim by relying on Supreme Court cases construing the
`FAA. “‘[A] litigant wishing to raise a federal issue can
`easily indicate the federal law basis for his claim in a
`state-court petition or brief . . . by citing in conjunction
`
`with the claim the federal source of law on which he relies
`or a case deciding such a claim on federal grounds . . . .’”
`Howell, supra, at 444 (quoting Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U. S.
`27, 32 (2004); emphasis added). The Oklahoma Supreme
`Court acknowledged the cases on which Nitro-Lift relied,
`as well as their relevant holdings, but chose to discount
`these controlling decisions. Its conclusion that, despite
`this Court’s jurisprudence, the underlying contract’s valid­
`ity is purely a matter of state law for state-court deter­
`
`mination is all the more reason for this Court to assert
`jurisdiction.
`
`

`
`4
`
`
`
`
`NITRO-LIFT TECHNOLOGIES, L. L. C. v. HOWARD
`
` Per Curiam
`
`The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision disregards this
`
`Court’s precedents on the FAA. That Act, which “de­
`clare[s] a national policy favoring arbitration,” Southland
`Corp. v. Keating, 465 U. S. 1, 10 (1984), provides that a
`“written provision in . . . a contract evidencing a transac­
`tion involving commerce to settle by arbitration a contro­
`versy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction
`. . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon
`such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation
`of any contract.” 9 U. S. C. §2. It is well settled that
`
`
`“the substantive law the Act created [is] applicable in state
`and federal courts.” Southland Corp., supra, at 12; see
`also Buckeye, supra, at 446. And when parties commit to
`arbitrate contractual disputes, it is a mainstay of the Act’s
`substantive law that attacks on the validity of the con­
`
`tract, as distinct from attacks on the validity of the arbi­
`tration clause itself, are to be resolved “by the arbitrator
`in the first instance, not by a federal or state court.”
`Preston v. Ferrer, 552 U. S. 346, 349 (2008); see also Prima
`
`Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U. S. 395
`(1967). For these purposes, an “arbitration provision is
`severable from the remainder of the contract,” Buckeye,
`supra, at 445, and its validity is subject to initial court
`determination; but the validity of the remainder of the
`
`contract (if the arbitration provision is valid) is for the
`arbitrator to decide.
`
`This principle requires that the decision below be va­
` cated. The trial court found that the contract contained a
`
`valid arbitration clause, and the Oklahoma Supreme
`Court did not hold otherwise. It nonetheless assumed the
`arbitrator’s role by declaring the noncompetition agree­
`ments null and void. The state court insisted that its
`“[own] jurisprudence controls this issue” and permits
`
`review of a “contract submitted to arbitration where one
`party assert[s] that the underlying agreement [is] void and
`unenforceable.” 273 P. 3d, at 26. But the Oklahoma
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`
`
`
` Cite as: 568 U. S. ____ (2012)
`
`
`Per Curiam
`Supreme Court must abide by the FAA, which is “the
`supreme Law of the Land,” U. S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2, and
`by the opinions of this Court interpreting that law. “It
`is this Court’s responsibility to say what a statute means,
`and once the Court has spoken, it is the duty of other
`courts to respect that understanding of the governing rule
`
`of law.” Rivers v. Roadway Express, Inc., 511 U. S. 298,
`
`312 (1994). Our cases hold that the FAA forecloses pre­
`cisely this type of “judicial hostility towards arbitration.”
`AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. ___, ___
`(2011) (slip op., at 8).
`The state court reasoned that Oklahoma’s statute “ad­
`
`dressing the validity of covenants not to compete, must
`govern over the more general statute favoring arbitration.”
`
`273 P. 3d, at 26, n. 21. But the ancient interpretive prin­
`ciple that the specific governs the general (generalia spe-
`cialibus non derogant) applies only to conflict between
`laws of equivalent dignity. Where a specific statute, for
`example, conflicts with a general constitutional provision,
`the latter governs. And the same is true where a specific
`state statute conflicts with a general federal statute.
`There is no general-specific exception to the Supremacy
`
`Clause, U. S. Const. Art. VI, cl. 2. “‘[W]hen state law
`prohibits outright the arbitration of a particular type of
`claim, the analysis is straightforward: The conflicting rule
`is displaced by the FAA.’” Marmet Health Care Center,
`Inc. v. Brown, 565 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2012) (per curiam)
`(slip op., at 3–4) (quoting AT&T Mobility LLC, supra, at
`___–___ (slip op., at 6–7)). Hence, it is for the arbitrator to
`
`decide in the first instance whether the covenants not to
`compete are valid as a matter of applicable state law. See
`Buckeye, 546 U. S., at 445–446.
`For the foregoing reasons, the petition for certiorari is
`
`granted. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Oklaho­
`ma is vacated, and the case is remanded for proceedings
`not inconsistent with this opinion.
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`5
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`It is so ordered.

This document is available on Docket Alarm but you must sign up to view it.


Or .

Accessing this document will incur an additional charge of $.

After purchase, you can access this document again without charge.

Accept $ Charge

This document could not be displayed.

We could not find this document within its docket. Please go back to the docket page and check the link. If that does not work, go back to the docket and refresh it to pull the newest information.

Your account does not support viewing this document.

You need a Paid Account to view this document. Click here to change your account type.

Your account does not support viewing this document.

Set your membership status to view this document.

With a Docket Alarm membership, you'll get a whole lot more, including:

  • Up-to-date information for this case.
  • Email alerts whenever there is an update.
  • Full text search for other cases.
  • Get email alerts whenever a new case matches your search.

Become a Member

One Moment Please

The filing “” is large (MB) and is being downloaded.

Please refresh this page in a few minutes to see if the filing has been downloaded. The filing will also be emailed to you when the download completes.

Sealed Document

We are unable to display this document, it may be under a court ordered seal.

If you have proper credentials to access the file, you may proceed directly to the court's system using your government issued username and password.


Access Government Site

We are redirecting you
to a mobile optimized page.





Document Unreadable or Corrupt

Try refreshing this document from the court, or go back to the docket to see other documents.

We are unable to display this document.

Go back to the docket to see more.