In assessing the enforceability of an arbitration provision in a contract allegedly obtained through fraud, the Court promulgates the “severability doctrine,” changing the standard for assessing the enforceability of all arbitration clauses.

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Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 395 (1967)
 

Relevant Facts: Two companies entered into a contract. One sued the other for breach of contract and fraudulent representation. In the lower courts, the defending company successfully sought to compel arbitration under a broad arbitration clause in the agreement.

 

Question Before The Court: Whether arbitration clauses are severable from the contracts that contain them.

 

The Opinion: The Court found that, since the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) specifies the manner in which federal courts are to treat questions relating to arbitration clauses, in considering whether to compel arbitration under the FAA, “a federal court may not consider a claim of fraud in the inducement of the contract generally . . . but may consider only the issues relating to the making and performance of the agreement to arbitrate.”

 

With that framework in mind, the Court held that arbitration clauses are severable from the contracts that contain them. In the Court’s view, Section 4 of the FAA requires courts to order arbitration once it is satisfied that the “making of the agreement to arbitrate . . . is not at issue.” Since the challenge in this case was to the formation of the contract, at large, rather than specifically to the arbitration clause contained within, and because there was no evidence that the parties intended to prevent this type of claim from being submitted to arbitration, the Court ruled that the FAA demanded the claim proceed in arbitration.

 

With the Prima Paint ruling, courts must look at challenges to arbitration clauses separately from challenges to the contracts that contain them. If a person challenges a contract at large, unless a specific challenge to the arbitration clause itself is launched, the court will compel arbitration, regardless of the possible unenforceability of the larger contract.

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