Recent decisions from the 3d and 11th Circuits drive home this point: an arbitration award is final and should not be revisited.
In Robinson v. Littlefield, 2015 WL 5520017 (3d Cir. Sept. 17, 2015), the parties arbitrated their dispute over the quality of a new RV. The arbitrator ruled for the RV buyers, awarding them about $85,000. The seller made an untimely motion with the AAA to modify or correct the award, and the arbitrator ignored it.
After the buyers entered their judgment in state court, the seller removed to federal court and moved to strike the judgment as not final (because the motion to modify had not been ruled upon). The district court asked the arbitrator to indicate whether the case was active, and the arbitrator clarified that he would not amend the previous award and it remained in full effect. The district court concluded that the arbitration award was not final until the arbitrator responded to the court, and so struck the entry of judgment. The Third Circuit un-vacated the arbitration award in no time, noting that arbitration awards are final when it is clear the arbitrator intends the award to be a complete determination of all submitted claims (including damages). In this case, the final award was the award for $85,000, and the motion to modify it “does nothing to change that conclusion.”
In IBEW, Local Union 824 v. Verizon Florida, 2015 WL 5827517 (11th Cir. Oct. 7, 2015), the court found the arbitrator exceeded his power by issuing a substituted award in a labor arbitration. The arbitrator had issued the original award, interpreting a clause in the parties CBA and applying it to particular employees. Two days later, the union asked the arbitrator to clarify the award (saying that applying the arbitrator’s rationale, more employees should have benefitted). In response, the company asked for a reconsideration of the entire award, asserting that a significant topic of the award had not been properly before the arbitrator. The arbitrator agreed with the company and issued a substituted award, eliminating the topic in question.
The union then sought to confirm the original award and vacated the substituted award. The district court ruled in favor of the union and the appellate court affirmed. It analyzed the union’s grievance and found it was broad enough to encompass all the issues addressed in the original award. “Where — as here–the parties refuse to stipulate to the issues at arbitration, the arbitrator is ’empowered’ to frame and decide all the issues in the grievance as he sees them.”
Furthermore, the 11th Circuit concluded the arbitrator lacked authority to revisit his original award. Importantly, the court noted that the governing AAA rules preclude an arbitrator from “redetermin[ing] the merits of any claim already decided.” The hardest issue for the court was the company’s argument that the union had “open[ed] the door” to a full reconsideration by asking for a clarification. The court agreed that contracting parties can authorize an arbitrator to reconsider his decision by mutual agreement, but said the parties did not mutually consent in this case, because the union sought much narrower relief than that sought by the company. The arbitrator’s original award stands.
The lesson from these cases? The parties should not seek reconsideration of the merits of a final award, and arbitrators should not grant a reconsideration of the merits. Final means final.