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.

 

While the Supreme Court has put off hearing a more contentious arbitration case until the fall (presumably in hopes that it will have nine justices by then), tomorrow it will hear the nursing home arbitration case from Kentucky.  I look forward to listening to the questions and trying to figure out why the Justices granted a review on the merits…  Instead of repeating my analysis of the Kentucky case, here are some recent state court arbitration cases of interest (in addition to the three I posted about a few weeks ago).

West Virginia.  Remember when West Virginia was the thorn in the FAA’s side?  When it was the leader of the pack of anti-arbitration states?  Well, not in West Virginia CVS Pharmacy v. McDowell Pharmacy, Inc., 2017 WL 562826 (W. Va. Feb. 9, 2017).   The lower court had refused to compel arbitration of disputes between retail pharmacies and a pharmacy benefit management company.  Applying West Virginia law, the lower court found there was no arbitration agreement, because the parties did not validly incorporate the manual that contained the arbitration provision.   The West Virginia Supreme Court, however, applied Arizona law, as provided in the contract, and that made all the difference.  It found the arbitration agreements were adequately incorporated, and that their reference to AAA rules was sufficient to delegate questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator.  No cert likely here.

Missouri.  The Supreme Court of Missouri took a safe bet in siding (partially) against the arbitrator in State ex rel Greitens, 2017 WL 587296 (Mo. Feb. 14, 2017), since the Supreme Court has denied cert petitions in many cases stemming from the master settlement agreement between states and tobacco companies.  (E.g., this most recent one.)  In this case, the state’s highest court found the arbitration panel exceeded its power when it deprived Missouri of its share of $50 Million in tobacco settlement payments for 2003.  The case is too complicated to explain in this post, but know that this is one of those rare examples of a court modifying an arbitration award, as opposed to just confirming or vacating it.  No cert likely here either.

Iowa.  I never get to write about Iowa (which my daughter called “why-owa” after a long road trip through farm country), but its supreme court issued a decision in late 2016 about nursing home arbitration that merits mention here.  In Roth v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, 886 N.W.2d 601 (Iowa 2016), Iowa’s highest court answered a certified question from the federal district court.  In short, it found that Iowa’s statutes do not require judicial resolution of loss of consortium cases, and in this case the children of the decedent were not bound by the decedent’s arbitration clause because the “claims belong to the adult children and they never personally agreed to arbitrate.”  (Hard to make a bet on certiorari in this case, since it is headed back to federal trial court…)

Alabama.  In Hanover Ins. Co. v. Kiva Lodge Condominium Owners’ Assoc., 2016 WL 5135201 (Ala. Oct. 21, 2016), the Supreme Court of Alabama found that when the parties adopted the following addendum to their contract, the first party who filed an action was able to dictate the forum: “Notwithstanding anything in this Addendum to the contrary, either party may pursue any claim or dispute in a court of law, or through mediation and arbitration.”  That amended language was added to the parties’ A201 General Conditions, right after language indicating that “any claim arising out of or related to the Contract… may at the election of either party…be subject to arbitration.”  After the condo association brought their claims in court and requested a referral to arbitration, the defendants argued that the case should stay in court.  The trial court sent the claims to arbitration and the supreme court affirmed that result, finding “the addendum provides that once a party elects arbitration as a method for resolution of a dispute…the other party cannot neutralize that choice by insisting on litigation in court…In short, Kiva Lodge has proven the existence of a binding mandatory arbitration agreement between the parties.”  This will not end up at the Supreme Court, but it’s an important drafting lesson for all of us.

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.

You hear more about Lena Dunham than you expect, given the audience for “Girls”, right?  (Read this article for more.)  The same is true, or should be true, for the contract defense of illusoriness.  After decades of disuse, it is popping up more and more often as a defense to the enforcement of arbitration clauses (like in New Mexico and the Fifth Circuit), and therefore qualifies as the “it girl” of arbitration law.  Just last week, the Sixth Circuit issued a new decision, affirming the district court’s denial of a motion to compel arbitration based on its conclusion that the arbitration agreement was illusory.

In Day v. Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing, Inc., 2013 WL 4859781 (6th Cir. Sept. 12, 2013), a number of independent sales representatives sued Fortune, alleging it was running an illegal pyramid scheme.  The parties’ agreement had an arbitration clause.  It also had a separate clause saying that Fortune could modify the agreement at any time, effective upon notice. Fortune moved to compel arbitration, and the district court denied the motion.  The district court concluded the arbitration clause was unenforceable because Fortune had the ability to modify the contract at any time, making its promises illusory and meaning the agreement lacked consideration under Kentucky law.  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed that ruling.

Relying on Kentucky state court cases from 1912, 1938, and 1949, the Sixth Circuit held that “because the contract lacked consideration, the entire contract, including the arbitration clause, is void and unenforceable.”  The problem, as the district court found, is that “in this case, in effect, [Fortune] promised to do certain things unless it decided not to, and that is by definition illusory.”   The court noted that Fortune could have made its contract enforceable by ensuring that unilateral changes were not effective until a notice period (30 days?) had passed.

The problem that I see with the reasoning in this case is it does not confront the severability doctrine (that began with Prima Paint and extends to Rent-a-Center).  That line of Supreme Court case law holds that in deciding the validity of an arbitration agreement, courts may not consider arguments that attack the validity of the contract as a whole, and instead courts are limited to arguments that identify something invalid in the arbitration agreement itself.  In this case, the invalidity came from the unilateral modification clause, which was outside the arbitration agreement.  The Sixth Circuit did not discuss that argument, so maybe no one argued it.  Alternatively, the Sixth Circuit may have concluded the illusoriness sufficiently affected the arbitration clause (it did say “Defendant could modify the arbitration clause to suit its purposes at any time”) to satisfy the severability doctrine, but that analysis is not set forth.  (To be fair, this case is not set for publication.)

Is illusoriness an up and coming argument for invalidating arbitration agreements?  Yes.  Should drafting parties reduce their risk by ensuring that unilateral modifications are not effective for a certain period of time?  Yes.  Does the party hoping to avoid arbitration need to construct an argument that the illusoriness is specific to the arbitration agreement itself?  That answer should also be yes.