Jay-Z Criticizes Lack of Black Arbitrators in a Battle Over a Logo

Posted November 28, 2018 7:41 p.m. EST

Rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z, who has been embroiled in a legal battle over his Roc Nation clothing brand, asked a court on Wednesday to halt arbitration proceedings on the grounds that there were not enough African-American arbitrators eligible to rule on his case.

The dispute revolves around Jay-Z’s sale of his Rocawear clothing brand in 2007 for more than $200 million to Iconix Brand Group. Jay-Z later founded a new entertainment company called Roc Nation. Last year, Iconix sued Jay-Z in federal court, saying that Roc Nation’s agreement with Major League Baseball to sell New Era baseball caps with the Roc Nation paper-airplane logo violated the 2007 sale agreement.

Jay-Z countersued months later, saying the agreement applied only to Rocawear, not Roc Nation. Iconix then required Jay-Z to enter into arbitration, which it was allowed to do as part of a separate 2015 agreement.

Each side was to pick four arbitrators from the American Arbitration Association’s “Large and Complex Cases” database, with the association supplying another four. Each side would eliminate names from the list of 12 until one was agreed upon by both.

On Wednesday, Jay-Z, filing under his legal name, Shawn Carter, asked a judge in state Supreme Court in Manhattan to temporarily halt the arbitration or to block it permanently if the dispute over the arbitrators is not resolved.

According to the court petition, as Jay-Z began looking at the list of eligible arbitrators, he was “confronted with a stark reality: He could not identify a single African-American arbitrator on the ‘Large and Complex Cases’ roster.”

When Jay-Z expressed this to the arbitration association, the group could find only three eligible arbitrators out of about 200 who identified as African-American, two men and one woman. One of the men had a conflict of interest, leaving the rapper with just two African-Americans to choose from, which his legal team called “no choice at all.”

The dearth of qualified black arbitrators “deprives litigants of color of a meaningful opportunity to have their claims heard by a panel of arbitrators reflecting their backgrounds and life experience” because of “unconscious bias” that most people have against people of different races, Jay-Z’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, wrote in the filing.

Lawyers for Iconix, which owns a number of brands including Joe Boxer, London Fog, Starter and Danskin, did not respond to a request for comment. The arbitration association declined to comment.

Jay-Z’s lawyers assert that the lack of African-American arbitrators constitutes racial discrimination. The filings did not cite any legal precedent regarding the race of arbitrators. But courts have ruled, most notably in the 1986 Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky, that in criminal trials prosecutors may not eliminate jurors from the jury pool strictly on the basis of race.

In 1994, the court held in J.E.B. v. Alabama that this rule extended to gender as well.

Earlier this year, Jay-Z was ordered by a court to testify in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Iconix’s accounting practices. Jay-Z had argued that his testimony was not relevant.