Adam N. Steinman
Volume 66, Issue 3, 795-822
The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Atlantic Marine clarified several things about the enforcement of forum-selection clauses in federal court. But something important was missing from Justice Alito’s opinion—the Erie doctrine. Erie, of course, helps to determine the applicability of state law in federal court, and state law potentially has a lot to say about contractual forum-selection clauses. Indeed, Erie was front and center the last time the Court confronted the enforcement of forum-selection clauses in federal court, when it decided Stewart Organization v. Ricoh a quarter century ago.
This article examines the Atlantic Marine decision through the lens of Erie, and explores the role that Erie and state law should play in the Atlantic Marine framework. Atlantic Marine may appear at first glance to mandate virtually unflinching enforcement of forum-selection clauses. But Justice Alito’s approach in Atlantic Marine applies only when the forum-selection clause is “contractually valid.” Properly understood, Erie requires federal courts to look to state law to decide this question—at least in diversity cases. To allow federal courts to disregard state law in applying Atlantic Marine would raise several troubling Erie concerns: geographic relocation contrary to what would occur in state court; changing the substantive law that would govern the ultimate merits of the litigation in state court; and overriding state contract law and contractual remedies via the sort of federal common law that Erie forbids.