Appealing Arbitration Decisions

The Seventh Circuit issued an opinion last week that sounded like it would be a big deal.  The case, Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp., 2018 WL 5116905 (7th Cir. Oct. 22, 2018), dealt with the fallout from SCOTUS’s Epic Systems, and addressed a class arbitrability issue of first impression, which meant it could have been epic indeed.  But instead, the decision is a fizzle that punts all the truly exciting issues back to the district court.

Herrington began in court as a collective action for minimum wages and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The named plaintiff had an arbitration clause which included this statement “Such arbitration may not be joined with or join or include any claims by any persons not party to this Agreement.”  So, the defendant moved to compel individual arbitration.  But, based on the 7th Circuit’s precedent finding that class waivers in employment agreements violated federal labor laws (the NRLA), the court sent the parties to arbitration with an order instructing the arbitrator to allow the plaintiff “to join other employees to her case.”

In arbitration, the parties continued to fight over what type of suit could proceed.  The arbitrator concluded that the arbitration agreement evinced the parties’ intent to allow class arbitration, because it incorporated AAA employment rules, which the arbitrator interpreted to also include the supplementary rules for class arbitration.   In the end, however, the group proceeded as a collective arbitration with 175 members, and the arbitrator awarded them $10 million.

While the issue was on appeal, SCOTUS overruled the 7th Circuit’s precedent (in Epic Systems), which upended this entire proceeding.  On its face, it seemed as if the initial decision not to enforce the arbitration clause precluding joinder should be un-done, which would vacate the entire award.  However, the plaintiffs argued that despite the language precluding joinder, the arbitration clause still contained other language that authorized the collective arbitration.  At that, the 7th Circuit pivoted and framed the question as: who decides whether the arbitration clause allows collective arbitration?  The court or the arbitrator?

Noting it was “an open question in our circuit,” the 7th Circuit agreed with “every federal court of appeals to reach the question” that the “availability of class arbitration is a question of arbitrability” and therefore presumptively for courts to decide.  But, the 7th Circuit did not address the next logical question that must be answered to resolve the case: does or does not the parties’ choice of AAA rules delegate even the availability of class arbitration to an arbitrator?  Because that is not only an open question in the 7th Circuit, but one on which the other federal circuits are split.

That issue is important because if the parties validly delegated that question to the arbitrator, then the arbitrator’s decision finding the parties’ arbitration clause allowed collective action is entitled to deference.  At that point, isn’t it just like Sutter?  The arbitrator allowed the class action, and the courts have to live with that construction, “good, bad or ugly”?

Well, all those issues will have to be worked out by the district court.  The 7th Circuit found “the district court should conduct the threshold inquiry regarding class or collective arbitrability to determine whether [plaintiff’s] agreement with [defendant] authorized the kind of arbitration that took place.”

Happy Halloween!  (Or, by the time most of you read this, Day of the Dead.  Can you believe my husband carved this cool pumpkin?)

I have saved up six opinions that considered whether to vacate an arbitration award over the summer.*  Only one of those opinions vacated the award; the other five confirmed.  To get a flavor of what types of arguments are winning and losing motions to vacate, here is a summary of those six.

Vacated

The lone vacatur came in Hebbronville Lone Star Rentals, LLC v. Sunbelt Rentals Industrial Services, LLC, 2018 WL 3719682 (5th Cir. Aug. 6, 2018). The issue in that case was whether the arbitrator exceeded his power by reforming the parties’ contract.  Sunbelt had purchased the assets of Lone Star, and agreed to later pay earnouts based on the post-sale revenue from Lone Star’s customers.  The asset purchase agreement provided that disputes over the amount of earnouts would be decided by the parties “jointly [selecting] the Accounting Firm to resolve any remaining dispute over Seller’s proposed adjustments…which resolution will be final.”  (If that doesn’t sound like an arbitration clause to you, be sure to read this post.)   A dispute arose over whether the revenues from certain Lone Star customers exceeded a target number established in the agreement.  The parties submitted that dispute to an accounting firm.

The arbitrator found that Sunbelt should have included the revenue of two additional customers, which would have resulted in a payment to Lone Star of $6.4M.  However, the arbitrator also concluded that the parties made a mutual mistake in calculating the target number in the agreement, and if the corrected target number was used, Lone Star was actually entitled to nothing.  Lone Star moved to vacate the portion of the arbitrator’s award that reformed the target amount based on mutual mistake.  The district court granted the vacatur, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  Oddly, the opinion is not framed in terms of vacatur at all; it does not reference Section 10(a) of the FAA.  Instead, the opinion framed the question as “who decides” the question of mutual mistake.  The court interpreted the language of the parties’ arbitration clause and found it too narrow to encompass the mutual mistake issue.  Therefore, that issue was remanded to the district court for determination.  (Also odd is the absence of any discussion of waiver in this opinion.   My sense is if the arbitrator had been a lawyer instead of a CPA, the analysis may have been quite different.)

Confirmed

The courts found the arguments for vacatur insufficient in five other cases:

  • In another case regarding earnout payments after an asset purchase, an accountant/arbitrator was appointed to hear the seller’s claim that the buyer was manipulating sales to ensure no earnout was owed.  DFM Investments, LLC v. Brandspring Solutions, LLC, 2018 WL 3569353 (8th Cir. July 25, 2018).  After reviewing documents and hearing arguments, the arbitrator found the seller not entitled to any revisions.  The seller moved to vacate, arguing the arbitrator had refused to consider material evidence.  The district court and Eighth Circuit disagreed, noting that the arbitrator concluded the additional evidence was not material.  “An arbitrator’s reasoned decision to forgo analyzing additional evidence does not, without more, provide grounds for vacating the decision.”
  • In a case that reminds all advocates to carefully preserve objections, the Ninth Circuit confirmed an award because the complaining party did not properly preserve its objection. Asarco LLC v. United Steel, 2018 WL 3028692 (9th Cir. June 19, 2018).  Like in Sunbelt, the issue was whether the arbitrator had the power to reform the parties’s labor agreement based on mutual mistake, despite a provision in the contract depriving the arbitrator of “authority to add to, detract from or alter in any way the provisions of” the contract.  The district court concluded the arbitrator had authority to reform the labor agreement.  The Ninth Circuit found Asarco had conceded the issue by arguing the arbitrator lacked authority, instead of preserving that issue for the courts by refusing to address jurisdiction with the arbitrator (0r seeking injunctive relief at the outset).  (Wow – what a harsh rule.)  Even so, the court analyzed the merits and found the arbitrator had authority to reform the agreement.  However, one dissenting judge wrote that he would vacate the award based on the arbitrator exceeding the scope of his powers.
  • In another case from the Eighth Circuit, the court refused to vacate an arbitration award, even though the arbitration award was nearly three times the contractual liability limit.  Beumer Corp. v. Proenergy Services, 2018 WL 3767135 (8th Cir. Aug. 9, 2018).  The arbitrator found the provision limiting damages to the “Contract Sum” was enforceable, but that attorneys fees and interest did not count as “damages” for the purpose of that provision.  The court found that, even if the arbitrator had overlooked Missouri decisions finding attorneys fees count as damages, it did not matter because manifest disregard of the law is not a valid basis to vacate an award.
  • Speaking of “manifest disregard,” Maryland’s high court took the opportunity to clarify that it lives on as a basis for vacating awards under Maryland’s Uniform Arbitration Act.  WSC/2005 LLC v. Trio Ventures Assoc., 2018 WL 3629441 (Md. July 30, 2018).  However, the arbitrator in Trio did not manifestly disregard the law, because he did not make “a palpable mistake of law or fact appearing on the face of the award.”  In fact, the arbitrator identified relevant principles of Maryland law, analyzed the parties’ contract, and issued damages that were “reasonably consistent” with principles of Maryland law.
  • Finally, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island confirmed an arbitration award, despite allegations that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law, in Prospect Chartercare LLC v. Conklin, 2018 WL 2945664 (R.I. June 13, 2018).  The arbitrator awarded 18 months of severance to an executive employee, and the employer moved to vacate the award based on the arbitrator’s alleged manifest disregard of the law by relying on “erroneous facts” and disregarding the contract language.  On appeal, the high court noted that even if the arbitrator had based his decision on a factual error, “such a mistake would not be a proper basis upon which to vacate the arbitration award.”  Furthermore, the arbitrator’s award was based upon a “passably plausible interpretation” of the parties’ agreement.

 

* There were more than six judicial opinions on whether to confirm an arbitration award over the summer, of course.  I focus on federal appellate courts (circuits and SCOTUS) as well as the highest court of each state.

Okay, folks, we are still combating the summer slide here.  Today’s refresher rule is this: If an arbitrator fails to disclose a substantial relationship, the resulting award can be vacated under 9 U.S. C. 10 (a)(2).  But, not all relationships are substantial, as the cases today make clear.

Beginning in my backyard,  the appellant in Ploetz v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC, 2018 WL 3213877 (8th Cir. June 12, 2018), sought to vacate a FINRA arbitration award due to an alleged failure to disclose.  The chairperson disclosed that he was currently serving as an arbitrator in two other cases where Morgan Stanley was a party and had served in 8 previous cases involving Morgan Stanley or an affiliated company.  However, he did not disclose he had once served as a mediator in a case involving Morgan Stanley, and the FINRA rules require disclosure of past service as a mediator.  After the three-person panel dismissed appellant’s claims, she moved to vacate the award.  The district court denied the motion, and the 8th Circuit affirmed that result.  After noting the test for evident partiality is unclear in this circuit and refusing to clarify it (srsly??), the court found no evidence that the lack of disclosure “creates even an impression of possible bias.” Instead, the court found it “represented at most a trivial and inconsequential addition to that relationship.”  It also faulted appellant for failing to seek discovery into the earlier mediation.

The D.C. Circuit reached a similar result in Republic of Argentina v. AWG Group Ltd., 2018 WL 3233070 (D.C. Cir. July 3, 2018).  There, the losing party in arbitration (Argentina) argued the award should be vacated because one of the three arbitrators failed to disclose her service on a board of directors.  Three years into a twelve-year arbitration, this arbitrator was named to UBS’s board of directors, and UBS managed investments in two of the other parties in the arbitration (the “opposing parties”).  The arbitrator did not know of UBS’s investments, and they did not turn up in a conflict check run by UBS when she joined the board.  Argentina asked her to recuse due to her service on the UBS board, but the other arbitrators rejected the challenge.   After the award, both the district court and D.C. Circuit found this did not rise to the level of evident partiality.  Critically, while the arbitrator had “some degree” of interest in Argentina’s opposing parties, it failed to show she had a “substantial interest.”  In addition, there was no proof that the opposing parties had “more than trivial” import to UBS, a passive investor (though it had invested more than $2 billion).  The court raised public policy concerns about how many disqualifications and vacaturs could result if this type of financial relationship was sufficient to establish evident partiality.

In Certain Underwriting Members of Lloyds of London v.  Florida, 2018 WL 2727492 (2d Cir. June 7, 2018), the issue was what disclosure standards apply to party-appointed arbitrators.  In the reinsurance arbitration at issue, one party (ICA) had appointed Campos as its arbitrator.  Campos failed to disclose that he was president of a human resources firm that officed out of the same suite as ICA, and used a former director of ICA as a vendor, and had just hired a former director of ICA as its CFO.  The district court vacated the award based on evident partiality, citing the number and depth of relationships.  The Second Circuit remanded, finding that a different test should apply to party-appointed arbitrators.  It noted that reinsurers seek arbitrators with industry expertise, who are often “repeat players with deep industry connections”, and courts should be “even more indulgent” of undisclosed relationships for party-appointed arbitrators who are expected to serve as advocates.  Therefore, the Second Circuit followed the lead of four other circuits, and set a different standard for evident partiality by a party-appointed arbitrator.  It clarified that nondisclosure by a party-appointed arbitrator is only fatal if it violates the “contractual requirement” (here, “disinterested”) or “prejudicially affects the award.”  On remand, the district court must determine whether Campos was disinterested (had a personal or financial stake in the outcome) and whether his failure to disclose had a prejudicial impact on the award.

The Supreme Court of Mississippi issued a new opinion that sheds light on a topic that doesn’t come up often: when can an arbitration award be modified due to miscalculation?  D.W. Caldwell, Inc. v. W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Co., 2018 WL 2146355 (Miss. May 10, 2018).

The context for the case was a construction dispute between a general contractor and a roofing subcontractor.  The arbitrator awarded damages to the subcontractor, and the general contractor filed a motion to the arbitrator to have the award modified.  The arbitrator denied the motion.

The contractor them made a motion in court to modify the award.  After taking testimony and exhibits in an evidentiary hearing, the court granted the motion to modify the award, reducing the subcontractor’s damages by over $100,000.  The contractor argued that the arbitrator “miscalculated” in two ways: first, by declaring that the amount of retainage was not ripe for decision; and second by double-counting some labor costs.

On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the trial court decision and instructed that the original award be confirmed.  In doing so, it established some guidelines for handling these types of motions in the future.  (It applied Mississippi statutes, finding that while the FAA would otherwise govern, the parties contracted for application of the state arbitration statutes.  But, it looked to federal precedent to inform its analysis.)  Importantly, it held that an evident miscalculation “must be apparent from nothing more than the four corners of the award and the contents of the arbitration record.”  Therefore, the district court erred by taking new evidence during the appeal.  In addition, the court found that the face of the award (and the arbitration record) did not show any mathematical error, and therefore there was “insufficient proof of an evident miscalculation.”

This case confirms that not only are the bases for vacatur under Section 10 of the FAA (and its state counterparts) interpreted very narrowly, but the bases for modification in Section 11 are just as hard to prove, if not more so.

p.s. Yikes!  It has been more than two weeks since my last post.  What have I been up to?  Well, preparing to present here  and  here and then updating the Arbitration chapter of this book.  Such a fun time of year!  Let me know if you’ll be at those events so we can connect.

 

The last post focused on three recent state appellate court decisions that refused to compel arbitration or vacated an award, and this follow-up post focuses on seven recent cases that are friendly to arbitration.

My favorite is from Montana.  Although none of its arbitration decisions have been addressed by SCOTUS, Montana decided to preempt any federal preemption issues by adjusting its stance on unconscionability.  (It waited five years after the 9th Circuit put it on notice, though.)  Lenz v. FSC Sec. Corp., 2018 WL 1603927 (Mont. April 3, 2018), involves claims by investors against investment advisors over “substantial losses.”  The defendants moved to compel arbitration and the district court granted the motion.  On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed.  In its decision, it took the opportunity to clarify that the previous test it had used to determine unconscionability was improper, because it mixed unconscionability analysis with the reasonable expectations doctrine from the insurance context.  (Read this mea culpa: “We have continued to perpetuate confusion by inaccurately referencing [bad tests for unconscionability] …Even more problematic in particular regard to arbitration agreements, we have failed to recognize the manifest incompatibility of the insurance-specific reasonable expectations doctrine as a generally applicable contract principle.”)  I read that as “we do not want to be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The others can be reviewed more quickly:

  • Substantive unconscionability cannot be established by showing only that the arbitration agreement is broad in scope.  SCI Alabama Funeral Servs. v. Hinton, 2018 WL 1559795 (Ala. March 30, 2018) [I’m a bit surprised that needed clarifying];
  • The Federal Arbitration Act applies to arbitration agreements within a common interest community’s covenants (and preempts conflicting state law).  In U.S. Home Corp. v. The Michael Ballesteros Trust, 2018 WL 1755536 (Nev. April 12, 2018), 12 homeowners argued that the FAA did not apply to the arbitration agreement in their covenants because land is traditionally a local concern.  The court found that the covenants’ larger purpose was to facilitate the creation of a community of multiple homes, and multiple out-of-state business contributed to construction of the homes.  Therefore, the FAA controlled and preempted Nevada rules requiring the same procedures as in court and requiring arbitration agreements to be more conspicuous than other text in a contract;
  • Non-signatories may compel arbitration if the plaintiff’s claims are based on facts that are “intertwined” with arbitrable claims.  Melendez v. Horning, 2018 WL 1191150 (N.D. March 8, 2018) (reversing district court order denying motion to compel arbitration);
  • Scope of arbitration agreement broad enough to encompass claims against related entity.  Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations v. Adams, 2018 WL 1355966 (Ala. March 16, 2018), concluded that where the employee’s arbitration agreement was with the “Company,” which was defined to include affiliate and related companies, the employee’s suit against a related company was arbitrable;
  • Arbitrator did not manifestly disregard contractual language in construction contract.  In ABC Building Corp. v. Ropolo Family, 2018 WL 1309761 (R.I. Mar. 14, 2018), the owner tried to vacate an arbitration award in favor of the general contractor.  It relied on contract language requiring submission of payroll records with payment applications in order to argue that the contractor could not receive additional compensation for labor without having provided that contemporaneous documentation.  However, the arbitrator considered that provision of the contract in his decision-making (and the owner had never complained), so vacatur was inappropriate (one judge dissented);
  • Delegation clause must be enforced if not specifically challenged.  Family Dollar Stores of W. Va. v. Tolliver, 2018 WL 1074947 (Feb. 27, 2018).  I know, it’s a stretch to call this one a spring decision.  But, it’s snowing in Minnesota on April 14th, so my seasons are totally confused.  That’s why we call it “Minnesnowta.”

 

The focus today is recent state appellate court decisions on arbitration. Because there are an awful lot of them, I am going to divide them roughly into those that are pro arbitration, and those that are hostile to arbitration.  This post focuses on the three relatively hostile cases (with the friendly cases coming in a sequel), on issues of scope, delegation clause, and vacatur.

In Keyes v. Dollar General Corp., 2018 WL 1755266 (Miss. April 12, 2018),  the Mississippi Supreme Court wrestled with whether claims of “malicious prosecution” are within the scope of an arbitration agreement.  Just as it did a few months ago, the court concluded those claims are not within the scope of the arbitration agreement.  Even though in Keyes, the employee’s arbitration agreement provided for arbitration of all disputes “arising out of your employment…or termination of employment” and the employee was accused of stealing a gift card, which led to a criminal complaint.  The court noted that there was no evidence the employee “contemplated” this situation and that the employer could have specifically included claims of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, etc. in the arbitration agreement.  [Can you imagine if we all had to list every possible claim for it to be covered by an arbitration agreement?  So.  Many.  Pages.]  On a similar issue, Texas reached the opposite result.

In Citizens of Humanity, LLC v. Applied Underwriters Captive Risk Assurance Co., Inc., 299 Neb. 545 (April 6, 2018), the Nebraska Supreme Court refused to enforce the delegation clause in the parties’ agreement.  [Yes, *that* Citizens of Humanity, of fancy jean fame.]  Just as in a similar 4th Circuit case, the party wanting to avoid arbitration alleged an anti-arbitration insurance statute precluded enforcement of the arbitration agreement (under the dreaded McCarran-Ferguson doctrine, which for a long time I refused to even acknowledge on this blog for fear of getting sucked into the morass).  The party seeking to arbitrate argued that the parties’ delegation clause assigned the issue of the anti-arbitration statute to the arbitrator, and that there had been no specific challenge to the delegation clause as required by Rent-A-Center. The Nebraska Supreme Court found the challenge was sufficiently specific in this case because the amended complaint mentioned the anti-arbitration statute and sought a declaration that the arbitration agreement was invalid, and because the challenger said during its hearing that its challenge included the delegation of arbitrability.  [Well, if you uttered the magic words at oral argument, then I guess that’s good enough…]  The court went on to find the delegation clause invalid and remanded the remaining arbitrability issues to the district court.

[The Third Circuit also found that a plaintiff had asserted a sufficiently specific challenge to a delegation clause in MacDonald v. Cashcall, Inc., 2018 WL 1056942 (Feb. 27, 2018).  But there, the complaint alleged that “any provision requirement that the enforceability of the arbitration procedure must be decided through arbitration is [] illusory and unenforceable.”  And the plaintiff’s brief at least stated that the delegation clause had the same defect as the arbitration provision.]

Last but not least, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decision vacating an arbitration award for violating public policy. In City of Richfield v. Law Enforcement Labor Servs., Inc., 2018 WL 1701916 (Minn. Ct. App. April 9, 2018), the city terminated a police officer following his improper use of force in a traffic stop and failure to self-report that force.  The officer challenged his discharge in arbitration, and the arbitrator found the use of force was not excessive and that the failure to report it was not malicious, and ordered the city to reinstate him.  The city appealed the award.  The district court refused to vacate the award, but the appellate court found vacatur appropriate under the public-policy exception.  The court looked to the officer’s previous failures to report his use of force and found “the interest of the public must be given precedence over the arbitration award.”  The court noted its decision is rare and unusual, but that it did “not take this action lightly.”

Sometimes current events provide an occasion perfect storm to educate about arbitration basics. This is one of those occasions.

Here are questions that friends and colleagues  storming mad people have asked me in the past day or so, with my best answers:

  • Does an arbitration agreement have to be signed by both parties to be enforceable (i.e. ride out the storm)?
    • The Federal Arbitration Act provides that an arbitration agreement must be “written,” but it does not also say it must be signed by all parties.  Whether a signature is required, along with all answers about the enforceability of arbitration agreements, depends on state contract law. In general, a contract requires an offer, acceptance, and consideration. And in most states, “acceptance” of an offer can take many forms. (See, for example,  this case (about Macy’s) finding a valid agreement without one party’s signature , but these cases finding no valid agreement where a signature was missing.)
  • Do arbitrators have authority to issue temporary or ex parte injunctions?
    • It depends. Arbitrators derive their authority from the parties’ arbitration agreement. If that arbitration agreement expressly grants the power to issue emergency, temporary, or ex parte injunctions, or if the arbitration agreement incorporates rules of an administrator (like the AAA) and those rules grant the power to issue those types of injunctions, then the arbitrator has power to enjoin the parties on an emergency or temporary basis (but only the parties, otherwise non-parties will kick up a storm and vacate the award).
  • How are injunctions from arbitrators enforced?
    • Within the arbitration proceeding, a party may seek sanctions from the arbitrator if the arbitrator’s temporary injunction is violated. Those sanctions can include anything authorized by the applicable rules. (Remember in this case, when the sanction was over $600 million?  Oh, that created a sh*tstorm.) Outside the arbitration proceeding, the party wanting to enforce the injunction (whether temporary or permanent) must first obtain a final arbitration award, and then have that award confirmed in federal court. (Remember, only “final” awards can be confirmed under the Federal Arbitration Act.) After that final award is confirmed in court, it is a judgment that can be enforced like any other court judgment.
    • However, when the winning party asks a court to confirm an award, the losing party often moves to vacate the arbitration award.  And the absence of a valid arbitration agreement is a solid basis to vacate the award.  For example, the Revised Uniform Arbitration Act authorizes vacatur if: “there was no agreement to arbitrate, unless the person participated in
      the arbitration proceeding without raising the objection.”

**Thanks for all the nudges about writing this post.  You convinced me that my desire to offer context to the news should trump my desire to storm off and pretend it is not happening.

Despite how often I talk about whack-a-mole and the tug-of-war between the state courts and SCOTUS on arbitration, the truth is that the majority of state supreme courts follow SCOTUS’s arbitration precedent (whether holding their noses or not, we don’t know). Recent weeks have given us multiple of those pro-arbitration state court decisions to highlight – from Alabama, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia.  Yes, that West Virginia.

In STV One Nineteen Senior Living, LLC v. Boyd, 2018 WL 914992 (Alabama Feb. 16, 2018), the Supreme Court of Alabama enforced the arbitration agreement in the admission documents of an assisted living facility.  The trial court had denied the facility’s motion to compel arbitration without explanation.  On appeal, the supreme court found the language of the arbitration agreement, which required arbitration of “any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to” the parties’ agreement, was broad enough to cover the tort claims asserted.

In Disano v. Argonaut Ins. Co., 2018 WL 1076522 (R.I. Feb. 28, 2018), the Supreme Court of Rhode Island refused to vacate an arbitration award.  Although the losing party argued that the panel of arbitrators had miscalculated damages, the supreme court applied a very deferential standard of review and noted that even if the arbitrators’ math skills were lacking, that “does not rise to the level necessary to vacate such an award.”

In Henry v. Cash Biz, 2018 WL 1022838 (Tex. Feb. 23, 2018), the Supreme Court of Texas found that a pay day lender did not waive its right to arbitrate by alerting the district attorney’s office to the borrowers’ conduct (issuing checks that were returned for insufficient funds).  The trial court had denied the lender’s motion to compel arbitration, the court of appeals had reversed, and the supreme court affirmed the intermediate appellate court.  It found: 1) that the borrowers’ claims of malicious prosecution were within the scope of the arbitration clause; and 2) that the lender’s status as the complainant in the criminal charge was not sufficient to prove that it “substantially invoked the judicial process.”  [Recall that Mississippi’s high court reached the opposite result in a very similar case just a few months ago.]

In another waiver case, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia held that a party’s “pre-litigation conduct” did not waive its right to arbitrate. In Chevron U.S.A. v. Bonar, 2018 WL 871567 (W. Va. Feb. 14, 2018), the trial court had denied Chevron’s motion to compel arbitration.  It found that Chevron’s decision to take actions consistent with its interpretation of the parties’ agreement had waived the right to arbitrate, because Chevron had “unilaterally decided” the questions instead of posing them to an arbitrator.  On appeal, the supreme court found “such a result simply is unreasonable” and “absurd.”  Therefore, it reversed with instruction for the trial court to issue an order compelling arbitration.

Just two days later, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia enforced the arbitration agreement in a contract of adhesion, again reversing the decision of a trial court. In Hampden Coal, LLC v. Varney, 2018 WL 944159 (W. Va. Feb. 16, 2018), an employee sued his employer and the employer moved to compel arbitration.  In response, the employee argued the arbitration clause was unenforceable.  On appeal, the supreme court clarified that it applies “the same legal standards to our review of all arbitration agreements,” and not a special standard if they involve employees or consumers.  It then found that the mutual agreement to arbitrate was sufficient consideration for the arbitration clause and that the arbitration clause was not unconscionable.

In a fitting ending to a post about high courts,  our nation’s highest court has agreed to decide a new arbitration case.  The case, New Prime Inc. v . Oliveiracomes from the 1st Circuit and raises two questions: whether a court or arbitrator should decide if an exemption to the FAA applies; and whether the FAA’s exemption (in Section 1) includes independent contractors.

The Fourth Circuit issued an opinion yesterday in an under-developed area of arbitration law: when are awards “mutual, final, and definite”?  This is an important issue because under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, arbitration awards can be vacated if they don’t meet the standard of “mutual, final and, definite.”

In Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sprint Communications Co., 2018 WL 1004805 (4th Cir. Feb. 22, 2018), the parties’ lease agreement called for a three-person appraisal panel to establish the price for the renewal period.  Each party selected their own appraiser, and those two appraisers chose a third appraiser.  (Let’s just call him the Chair.)  In December of 2014, the Chair issued a “majority decision,” setting a payment amount and identifying two critical assumptions underlying that payment amount.  The majority decision clarified that  “[i]f either of these extraordinary assumptions are found to not be true, [the Chair] … reserves the right to withdraw his assent.”   A panel of AAA arbitrators then determined the Majority Decision was final and binding.

Norfolk Southern then moved to confirm the Majority Decision and the district court granted the motion.  The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding the Majority Decision was not “final”.  It cited cases for the proposition that “[a]n award is not ‘final’ under the FAA if it fails to resolve an issue presented by the parties to the arbitrators.”  The court focused on the Chair’s reservation of his right to withdraw his assent as the key aspect of the Majority Decision that made it lack finality.  It wrote: the Chair “did not merely base his assent on certain assumptions, but rather reserved the right to withdraw his assent if his assumptions proved to be incorrect. This outcome cannot be squared with any conception of ‘finality.'”

The Fourth Circuit remanded to the district court with instructions to vacate the award, and told the parties to go back to arbitration for “an arbitration award that is “final” and otherwise complies with the FAA and this opinion.”

This is an important case for arbitrators to read in order to be sure they issue awards that are final and can be confirmed.

 

Two cases recently fit in one of my favorite categories: those awards that get “un-vacated.”  These cases went through arbitration, had that arbitration award vacated by a district court, only to have the award later resurrected by an appellate court.  In today’s edition, the whiplash happens in both state and federal court.

In Caffey v. Lees, 2018 WL 327260 (R.I. Jan. 9, 2018), Lees was the winner after bringing a personal injury case in arbitration. He was awarded nearly $200,000.  Caffey moved to vacate the award, arguing every possible basis under the Rhode Island arbitration statute.  The trial court granted the motion to vacate, based on the initial failure of Lees’ counsel to disclose a document from its expert.  Not just any document, of course, but an early assessment that contradicted the expert’s eventual opinion about causation.  The trial court found that omission meant the award was procured by “undue means.”

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island noted it had not addressed “undue means” since 1858.  It looked to more recent definitions from federal circuit courts of the phrase — noting that proving undue means involves proving “nefarious intent or bad faith” or “immoral” conduct.   It found that standard was not met in this case, since the losing party had the critical document well before it submitted its final brief to the arbitrator.  Indeed, the issue of the untimely disclosure was placed before the arbitrator, and the expert explained the discrepancy.  Because the expert had a plausible explanation, the court could not agree that Lees’ counsel obtained the award through underhanded or conniving means.  The Supreme Court reinstated the award.

A case in the Ninth Circuit followed the same path.  In Sanchez v. Elizondo, 2018 WL 297352 (9th Cir. Jan. 5, 2018), an investor won a $75,000 award in a FINRA arbitration.  The district court granted the broker’s motion to vacate based on an argument that the arbitrator exceeded his powers.  In particular, the arbitrator allowed the arbitration to proceed with a single arbitrator, even after the claimant had submitted a pre-hearing brief increasing its damage request to just over the FINRA line that requires a three-arbitrator panel.  (The FINRA rules provide that claims over $100,000 must be heard by three arbitrators.  The claimant had initially requested exactly $100,000, so was assigned the single arbitrator, but then sought $125,000 in the pre-hearing brief, without amending the claim.)

The Ninth Circuit reinstated the award.  After first establishing that it had appellate jurisdiction, it considered the arbitrator’s powers.  Importantly, the court affirmed that arbitrators have discretion on matters of substance as well as matters of procedure.  In this case, FINRA rules explicitly gave the arbitrator power to interpret the FINRA Code and rules. Furthermore, the arbitrator asked the parties to address the issue of the increased damage amount, considered their arguments, and interpreted the rule to reference the amount initially claimed in the demand, instead of any amount later sought in the arbitration.  Because the arbitrator had power to interpret the rule and did so, the court found he did not exceed his powers.

These don’t seem like hard cases to me.  Given the standard for vacating awards, these arbitration awards should have been straightforward to confirm.  The fact that they weren’t suggests either that the speed of development under the FAA is difficult for advocates and judges to keep up with, or that there may be some judicial hostility toward arbitration coloring the application of the standard for vacatur.