In Re Service Corporation International (SCI) (Tex. 2011)
PER CURIAM OPINION OF THE TEXAS SUPREME COURT
This mandamus proceeding arises from an arbitration agreement governed by the Federal
Arbitration Act (FAA). The parties entered into a contract for interment rights and services. The
contract obligated the parties to arbitrate this dispute over the care and maintenance of the cemetery.
The arbitration agreement provides that an arbitrator would either be selected by mutual agreement
of the parties or appointed by the American Arbitration Association (AAA). The parties failed to
agree to an arbitrator and the trial court appointed an arbitrator without allowing a reasonable
opportunity to procure an appointment by AAA. We conclude that the trial court abused its
discretion and conditionally grant the petition for writ of mandamus.
|SERVICE CORPORATION INTERNATIONAL|
OFFICE TOWER IN HOUSTON
SCI) entered into a written contract with Gabriel and Yolanda Serna for two burial plots in the
Magic Valley Memorial Gardens after the death of their son. The contract contained an arbitration
clause to be utilized for dispute resolution. Under the arbitration clause, the parties would choose
an arbitrator by mutual agreement. If the parties were unable to agree on an arbitrator, the AAA
would select the arbitrator upon application of one or both of the parties.
The Sernas filed a suit against SCI on March 19, 2009, alleging, among other things, that SCI
had misrepresented the cemetery as a licensed endowment-care facility and failed to properly
maintain the cemetery. In its original answer, SCI asserted that the dispute was bound for
arbitration. The parties were unable to agree on an arbitrator for several months. When the parties
eventually reached an agreement on an arbitrator on October 14, 2009, he was disqualified because
he represented employees of SCI in an unrelated case. On October 27, the Sernas asked the trial
court to appoint an arbitrator, arguing that SCI had waived its right to seek an appointment by the
AAA. On November 10, the trial court appointed former district judge Abel C. Limas to arbitrate
the case after concluding that the parties were unable to agree on an arbitrator and SCI had waived
the right to seek an AAA appointment. SCI filed a motion for rehearing arguing that the contractual
provision required that the AAA appoint the arbitrator, and that the Sernas were responsible for
initiating proceedings with the AAA. The trial court denied the motion for rehearing on December
15. SCI unsuccessfully sought a writ of mandamus from the court of appeals. In this Court, SCI
requests that we direct the trial court to vacate its order naming Limas as arbitrator.
Mandamus relief is appropriate when the trial court has abused its discretion and there is no
adequate remedy by appeal. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 135–36 (Tex. 2004)
(citations omitted). When a trial court errs in determining the law or in applying the law to the facts,
it has abused its discretion. Id. at 135 (citations omitted). No adequate remedy by appeal exists
when a trial court erroneously appoints an arbitrator pursuant to section 5 of the Federal Arbitration
Act because the FAA does not provide for review of the trial court’s actions in state court.1 See 9
U.S.C. § 5; In re La. Pac. Corp., 972 S.W.2d 63, 65 (Tex. 1998) (per curiam). Because the terms
of the contract require the parties to apply to the AAA to appoint an arbitrator upon their failure to
agree to an arbitrator, we conditionally issue a writ of mandamus.
The parties agree that this case is governed by the FAA, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1–16. Section 5 of the
If in the agreement provision be made for a method of naming or appointing an
arbitrator or arbitrators or an umpire, such method shall be followed; but if no
method be provided therein, or if a method be provided and any party thereto shall
fail to avail himself of such method, or if for any other reason there shall be a lapse
in the naming of an arbitrator or arbitrators or umpire, or in filling a vacancy, then
upon the application of either party to the controversy the court shall designate and
appoint an arbitrator or arbitrators or umpire, as the case may require, who shall act
under the said agreement with the same force and effect as if he or they had been
specifically named therein . . . .
9 U.S.C. § 5 (emphasis added). The primary purpose of the FAA is to require enforcement of
arbitration agreements “according to their terms.” Volt Info. Scis. v. Bd. of Trs., 489 U.S. 468, 479
(1989). Before the trial court can intervene and appoint an arbitrator, section 5 requires that parties
follow the previously agreed method of arbitrator selection. CMH Homes v. Perez, 340 S.W.3d 444,
449 (Tex. 2011). Because the FAA requires the trial court to follow the arbitrator selection method
detailed in the contract, we first determine the method of appointment required by the contract.
Footnote 1 This case was filed prior to the 2009 addition of section 51.016 to the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code expanding state court interlocutory review of certain FAA arbitration matters. See CMH Homes v. Perez, 340 S.W.3d 444 (Tex. 2011) (discussing the appellate remedies available to parties in arbitration proceedings following the 2009 amendment).
The contract signed by SCI and the Sernas outlined the following method of appointing an
[T]he arbitrator shall be selected by mutual agreement of the parties. If the parties fail
to or are unable to agree on the selection of an appropriate arbitrator, the AAA shall
select the arbitrator pursuant to its rules and procedures upon the application of one
or both parties.
The agreement provides only two ways that the parties may select an arbitrator: (1) mutual
agreement, or (2) if the parties cannot agree, the AAA selects an arbitrator. When the parties failed
to agree on an arbitrator, the contract required petitioning the AAA to appoint an arbitrator. Because
the contract plainly requires the AAA to appoint an arbitrator when mutual agreement fails, the trial
court abused its discretion by appointing an arbitrator unless an exception under section 5 applies.
The parties contracted to this method of appointing an arbitrator. The trial court is permitted
to appoint an arbitrator under section 5 of the FAA only if one or both of the parties “fail[s] to avail”
itself of the agreed-upon arbitrator selection method, or there is a “lapse” in the selection of an
arbitrator. 9 U.S.C. § 5. The section 5 substitution process triggered by the “fail to avail” and
“lapse” language of the FAA should be invoked by the trial court when there is some “mechanical
breakdown in the arbitrator selection process” or “one of the parties refuses to comply, thereby
delaying arbitration indefinitely.” In re La. Pac. Corp., 972 S.W.2d at 64–65 (Tex. 1998) (citing
In re Salomon Inc., 68 F.3d 554, 560 (2d Cir. 1995) (interpreting “lapse” and “fail to avail” in
section 5 of the FAA)). The Sernas argue that SCI has forfeited its right to involve the AAA in the
arbitrator selection process because of a lapse due to the time that had passed, the failure of SCI to
apply to the AAA, and a mechanical breakdown in the method of selecting an arbitrator. We do not
The Sernas contend that a time lapse in applying to the AAA triggered the trial court’s
authority to appoint an arbitrator under section 5 of the FAA. It is important to remember that the
FAA disfavors waiver and similar forfeitures of arbitration rights, and there is a strong presumption
against them. Moses H. Cone Mem’l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24–25 (1983)
(observing that, under the FAA, any doubts concerning “an allegation of waiver, delay or a like
defense to arbitrability” should be “resolved in favor of arbitration”); Prudential Secs. Inc. v.
Marshall, 909 S.W.2d 896, 898 (Tex. 1995) (noting the presumption, under both federal and state
law, against waiver of a contractual right to arbitration). We have observed that “one of the central
purposes of the FAA has been to allow the parties to select their own arbitration panel if they choose
to do so.” In re La. Pac. Corp., 972 S.W.2d at 65. However, section 5 tempers the principle that
parties are free to make – and enforce – their arbitration agreements as they see fit, with the
countervailing grant of authority to a district court to intercede and “spur the arbitral process
forward” when the parties reach a stalemate in naming an arbitrator. Pac. Reins. Mgmt. Corp. v.
Ohio Reins. Corp., 814 F.2d 1324, 1329 (9th Cir. 1987).
In Pacific Reinsurance, a district judge appointed an umpire, notwithstanding the parties’
arbitration agreement, under circumstances in which the litigants had “tried and failed” to name an
umpire. Id. at 1329. Finally, after “five months of impasse,” the trial court appointed an umpire on
motion of one of the parties. Id. The Court affirmed the appointment on failure-to-avail and lapse
grounds, holding that section 5 may properly be invoked when the parties’ “impasse” had lasted for
five months. Id. The Court explained that while parties should be afforded every reasonable
opportunity “to comply with their agreement,” section 5 may be invoked by a trial court to appoint
an arbitrator where the arbitration process “stagnate[s] into endless bickering over the selection
This is not such a case. The contract provides consensual methods for appointment of an
arbitrator, and the court must allow the parties sufficient time to utilize the contractual method
before intervening to appoint an arbitrator. An unreasonable delay in such an appointment,
sufficient to constitute a lapse or failure to avail, should be measured from the point when mutual
agreement failed. See id.; cf. In re Universal Underwriters of Tex. Ins. Co., 345 S.W.3d 404, 409
(Tex. 2011) (holding, in the context of the right to an appraisal under an insurance contract, that an
unreasonable delay sufficient to invoke waiver must be measured from the point of impasse – the
point at which the parties become aware of the futility of further negotiations). Seven months
elapsed from SCI’s motion to compel arbitration in April 2009 to the time the trial court appointed
an arbitrator in November. The Sernas argue the seven-month period establishes a deadlock or
impasse between the parties justifying the trial court’s intervention. On the contrary, that sevenmonth
period includes the time the parties worked to reach a mutual agreement and did agree on an
arbitrator, only to have him recused on conflict-of-interest grounds. The arbitration clause
contemplated efforts to reach such an agreement. The applicable delay is the time after an impasse
or deadlock is reached. See Pac. Reins., 814 F.2d at 1329.
An impasse, if any, occurred after the agreed arbitrator was disqualified. Acting on the Sernas’ motion, filed less than two weeks after the agreed arbitrator was disqualified, the trial court
appointed an arbitrator, notwithstanding the contract. This appointment occurred just one month
after the parties had been in apparent agreement on an arbitrator. Thus, the disagreement of the
parties as to the selection of the arbitrator was at most one month old. We are unable to locate any
instance in which a federal court held that a delay in appointing an arbitrator as short as one month
constituted a lapse under section 5. In the instances in which courts have found a lapse, the periods
between the impasse and the appointment of an arbitrator are significantly longer than one month.
See e.g., Pac. Reins. Mgt. Corp., 814 F.2d at 1328 (concluding that a five-month “impasse” between
the parties resulted in both a “lapse” and “fail[ure] to utilize” the agreed-to umpire-selection
method); Trustmark Ins. Co. v. Clarendon Nat’l Ins. Co., No. 09 C 6169, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
8078, at *14 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 1, 2010) (holding that a four-month delay, measured from the time the
defendants sent a list of potential umpires to the plaintiffs with no response to the time the
defendants asked the trial court to appoint an umpire, constituted a lapse). As a matter of law, a one month interval following an impasse, by itself, cannot reasonably be construed as a lapse in
appointing an arbitrator. The parties had reached an agreement previously; both their contract and
section 5 entitled them to a reasonable opportunity to do so again.
Arguing a failure-to-avail point, the Sernas assert that it was clear that neither party intended
to apply to the AAA and, further, SCI’s position was that it did not have the obligation to petition
the AAA for appointment of an arbitrator. Again relying on the seven-month period from the filing
of SCI’s motion to compel through the time the trial court appointed an arbitrator, the Sernas
contend that a stalemate had been reached. Reiterating, the period of time during which the parties
are in discussions or negotiations toward mutual selection of an arbitrator does not count as delay
after an impasse. See generally In re Universal Underwriters of Tex. Ins. Co., 345 S.W.3d at
408–09. As a matter of law, we conclude that under section 5 a one-month halt in negotiations
between the parties does not in itself constitute a failure to avail by SCI of its contractual right to
have the AAA select the arbitrator, irrespective of whether one or both parties had the contractual
burden to pursue AAA appointment.
The Sernas also argue that an ambiguity in the contract resulted in a mechanical breakdown
in the selection of an arbitrator. The contract states that “in the absence of [applicable state laws
governing arbitration], the arbitration proceedings shall be conducted in accordance with the
applicable rules of the [AAA]; provided, however, that the foregoing reference to the AAA rules
shall not be deemed to require any filing with that organization . . . .” The Sernas argue that these
provisions are contradictory and ambiguous and should be construed against the contract drafter,
SCI. When interpreting a contract, our primary concern is to ascertain and give effect to the intent
of the parties as expressed in the contract. Seagull Energy E & P, Inc. v. Eland Energy, Inc., 207
S.W.3d 342, 345 (Tex. 2006) (citations omitted). “To discern this intent, we ‘examine and consider
the entire writing in an effort to harmonize and give effect to all the provisions of the contract so
that none will be rendered meaningless. No single provision taken alone will be given controlling
effect; rather, all the provisions must be considered with reference to the whole instrument.’”Id.
The provisions that the Sernas argue are ambiguous simply define the rules applicable to
arbitration proceedings and do not conflict with other portions of the arbitration agreement. Because
the contract allows for the appointment of an arbitrator without the involvement of the AAA, the
contract provides that, although the parties may use AAA rules to govern their dispute, no filing with
the AAA is required when the parties mutually agree. However, if the parties cannot agree, then
either party may apply to have an arbitrator appointed through the AAA’s procedures. We conclude
that the contract is not ambiguous on this point. If the parties cannot agree on an arbitrator, the
contract requires that they use AAA to appoint the arbitrator.
Accordingly, without hearing oral argument, we conditionally grant mandamus relief to SCI
and direct the trial court to vacate its prior order appointing an arbitrator and allow the parties a
reasonable opportunity to select an arbitrator pursuant to their agreement. TEX. R. APP. P. 59.1,
52.8(c). We are confident the trial court will comply, and the writ will issue only if it fails to do so.
OPINION DELIVERED: December 16, 2011
FULL STYLE AND CASE DETAILS
IN RE SERVICE CORPORATION INTERNATIONAL AND SCI TEXAS FUNERAL SERVICES, INC. D/B/A MAGIC VALLEY MEMORIAL GARDENS; from Hidalgo County; 13th district (13-09-00681-CV, ___ SW3d ___, 02-17-10) stay order issued March 12, 2010, lifted
Pursuant to Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 52.8(c), without hearing oral argument, the Court conditionally grants the writ of mandamus.
Per Curiam Opinion
Click below to read the opinion of the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals:
IN RE SERVICE CORPORATION INTERNATIONAL, Tex: Court of Appeals, 13th Dist. 2010
IN RE SERVICE CORPORATION INTERNATIONAL AND SCI TEXAS FUNERAL SERVICES, INC. D/B/A MAGIC VALLEY MEMORIAL GARDENS.
Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi.
Delivered and filed February 17, 2010.
Before Justices RODRIGUEZ, GARZA, and BENAVIDES.
Relators, Service Corporation International and SCI Texas Funeral Services, Inc. d/b/a Magic Valley Memorial Gardens, filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the above cause on December 18, 2009. On December 28, 2009, relators filed a motion for expedited relief in connection with this petition for writ of mandamus, which motion was granted by this Court the following day. The Court requested and received a response to the petition from the real parties in interest, Gabriel Serna and Yolanda Serna, and such response and a supplemental record were duly filed on January 19, 2010. On January 25, 2010, relators filed a reply in support of their petition for writ of mandamus.
The Court, having examined and fully considered the petition for writ of mandamus, the response, and the reply thereto, is of the opinion that relators have not shown themselves entitled to the relief sought. See 9 U.S.C. § 5; In re FirstMerit Bank, N.A., 52 S.W.3d 749, 757 (Tex. 2001) (orig. proceeding) (stating that the "FAA permits the trial court to choose an alternate set of arbitrators"); In re La. Pac. Corp., 972 S.W.2d 63, 64-65 (Tex. 1998) (orig. proceeding) ("Courts interpreting the "fail to avail" or "lapse" language of the FAA have generally held that the section 5 substitution process should be invoked by the trial court only when some "mechanical breakdown in the arbitrator selection process" occurs or when "one of the parties refuses to comply, thereby delaying arbitration indefinitely."); see also Royce Homes, L.P. v. Bates, No. 01-08-00121-CV, 2010 Tex. App. LEXIS 389, at *29-30 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] Jan. 21, 2010, no pet. h.) (op.) ("Here, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by appointing an arbitrator because the record reflects that there was a mechanical breakdown in the process of appointing CAS as arbitrator."). Cf. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 171.041(b) (Vernon 2005) (providing for the substitution of arbitrators where the agreed method of appointment of arbitrators "fails or cannot be followed" under the Texas Arbitration Act); In re Brock Specialty Servs., Ltd., 286 S.W.3d 649, 656 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi 2009, orig. proceeding) (applying section 5 of the FAA to allow the trial court to choose an alternate arbitrator where the arbitrator specified by contract was no longer in existence).
Accordingly, the stay previously imposed by this Court is LIFTED. See Tex. R. App. P. 52.10(b) ("Unless vacated or modified, an order granting temporary relief is effective until the case is finally decided."). The petition for writ of mandamus is DENIED. See id. 52.8(a).
 See Tex. R. App. P. 52.8(d) ("When denying relief, the court may hand down an opinion but is not required to do so."); Tex. R. App. P. 47.4 (distinguishing opinions and memorandum opinions).