Pick up any textbook or treatise on arbitration law, and you’ll find the same thing in the chapter on enforcing arbitral awards: courts cannot conduct a merits review of awards. Courts, in other words, do not second guess the conclusions of the arbitrators about law or facts.

Or at least they’re not supposed to do so.

Still, losing parties often try to convince a reviewing court that the arbitrator “exceeded her powers.”  These sorts of excess of authority arguments have become quite common.

That’s exactly the sort of argument at issue in a hot-off-the-presses Tenth Circuit case, MEMC II, LLC v. Cannon Storage Sys., Inc., No. 18-6079, 2019 WL 549633 (10th Cir. Feb. 12, 2019).

In the case, the parties entered into a standard form construction contract, containing an arbitration clause. Cannon was supposed to build a commercial storage facility for MEMC. A dispute arose because Cannon decided that it needed to make some changes to the structural plans. When MEMC discovered this, it refused to continue to pay Cannon. Cannon then initiated arbitration to recover the payments.

MEMC defended by saying that Cannon had committed a material breach. It maintained that, under applicable Texas law, Cannon’s unilateral decision to depart from the specifications constituted a per se material breach discharging it from its duty to pay under the contract. The arbitrator listened to the arguments at a three-day hearing, reviewed over 100 exhibits, and concluded that MEMC had breached by failing to pay Cannon. She also found that Cannon had breached by not getting approval for several of the changes it made, but that the cost of remediating Cannon’s breaches had not be sufficiently proven by MEMC. Accordingly, she awarded $143,608 in damages to Cannon and nothing to MEMC.

MEMC challenged the award on the basis of excess of authority. The argument was essentially that “the arbitrator was required to apply the law and by awarding damages when the law would not allow for recovery of damages, the arbitrator exceeded her authority.”

The Tenth Circuit took the opportunity to give us all an Arbitration 101 lesson. Citing another Tenth Circuit case from last year – which indicates that parties may not be learning the lesson – the Court said, “[E]rrors in either the arbitrator’s factual findings or his interpretation of the law (unless that interpretation shows a manifest disregard of controlling law) do not justify review or reversal on the merits of the controversy.” (quoting Dish Network L.L.C. v. Ray, 900 F.3d 1240, 1243 (10th Cir. 2018)).

[F]ederal courts strongly defer to an arbitrator’s decisions. Because of this, “a party seeking relief under § 10(a)(4) bears a heavy burden.” [Oxford Health Plans LLC, 569 U.S. 564, 564 (2013) (quotations omitted).] “[C]onvincing a court of an arbitrator’s error—even his grave error—is not enough” to warrant vacatur under § 10(a)(4). Id. at 572. “Because the parties ‘bargained for the arbitrator’s construction of their agreement,’ an arbitral decision ‘even arguably construing or applying the contract’ must stand, regardless of a court’s view of its (de)merits.” [citations omitted]

In most circumstances, the Federal Arbitration Act requires that the losing party move to vacate an arbitration award within three months.  However, the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that the three-month timeline can be tolled, especially for something as significant as the chair lying about being a licensed attorney.

In Move, Inc. v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., 2016 WL 6543522 (9th Cir. Nov. 4, 2016), Move started a FINRA arbitration against Citigroup, alleging the mismanagement of $131 million.  Move expressed its strong desire to have an experienced attorney as chair, given the complexity of the claims.  So, it gave top ranking to “James H. Frank,” who certified to FINRA that he had a law degree and was licensed in three states.  Mr. Frank then served as the chair of the three person panel, signing a unanimous award denying Move’s claims in December of 2009.

However, the person who served as chair had lied about his qualifications and was not even a licensed attorney.  (He was impersonating a retired California attorney.)  Move discovered that fact in 2014.  (By reading The AmLaw Litigation Daily, which should now use this in its subscription sales pitches.)  Move then filed a motion to vacate the arbitration award.

The district court denied the motion, but the Ninth Circuit reversed.  First, it held “that the FAA is subject to equitable tolling.”  It appears to be the first federal appellate court to reach that result, with the Fifth Circuit having held the opposite in an unpublished case in 1993.  Although part of the lure of arbitration is its finality, the court noted “the general pro-arbitration policy relies on the assumption that the forum is fair, and therefore cannot justify special deference to arbitration outcomes in the face of a colorable claim that the forum was unfair in a particular case.” (Citing the 6th Circuit.)

Having concluded that it could address the substance of the vacatur motion, the court then found that the false information about the chairperson’s professional qualifications  constituted “misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced” and therefore the award should be vacated under Section 10(a)(3).  Because Move made clear in the selection process that having an attorney as chair was critical, and the chair was “an impostor,” the parties’ contractual rights to arbitrate before a panel of three qualified FINRA arbitrators was prejudiced and Move “was deprived of a fundamentally fair hearing.”  The court was not swayed by arguments that the other two members of the panel had voted for the award as well, noting that “there is simply no way to determine” whether the chair influenced the other panelists.

Although I trust that it is a very unusual case for arbitrators to lie about their qualifications, it may be that their disclosure forms list lesser inaccuracies.  What if it was simply that the chair had let his licensure lapse in one of the states?  What lessons does this case offer for lesser types of inaccuracies?  For advocates, it suggests it is useful to make a clear record of what arbitrator qualifications are important during the selection process, so that if there is a problem you can show prejudice.  For arbitrators, it suggests you must be exceedingly careful in the accuracy of the bio you provide.  And for arbitration administrators, like JAMS, AAA and FINRA, it shows that having a system for double-checking arbitrator qualifications is very important.  It is part of the service you are providing the parties.

In an atmosphere in which a federal judge has blocked the CMS rule precluding arbitration in nursing home agreements, and we have a president-elect who seems likely to roll back the other agency regulations of arbitration, we may see courts policing the fundamental fairness of arbitration proceedings more often.  It will be one way to address the public sentiment that arbitration is unfair and stacked in favor of large companies (see this recent editorial by Gretchen Carlson).

The Federal Arbitration Act sets forth only four bases for vacating arbitration awards.  See 9 U.S.C. § 10 (a).    After SCOTUS’s 2008 decision in Hall Streetat least half of the circuit courts have concluded that those four bases are exclusive, de-legitimizing the creative bases that judges had developed over the years.  However, a recent Fourth Circuit opinion vacated an arbitration award for “manifest disregard of the law,” a judicially-created basis for vacating arbitration awards that is not contained in Section 10 of the FAA.

In Dewan v. Walia, 2013 WL 5781207 (4th Cir. Oct. 28, 2013), there was an arbitration between a company and its former employee.  Each side made claims against the other.  Critically, however, the employee had executed a Release Agreement in exchange for $7,000 just three months before the arbitration, which allegedly released all his employment claims.  After the hearing, the Arbitrator concluded that the Release Agreement was enforceable, but still awarded damages to the employee.  The district court confirmed the arbitrator’s award.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed.  It instructed the district court to vacate the arbitration award because it was “the product of a manifest disregard of the law by the Arbitrator.”  The court conducted its own analysis of the release language and concluded that the employee had released all claims against the company, including those he pursued in the arbitration, and therefore the arbitrator should not have awarded the employee any damages on his claims in the arbitration.

One judge dissented.  The dissent, while never citing Sutter, invokes the same standard used in Sutter, noting that the arbitrator did her job and interpreted the contract.  “Because the arbitrator unquestionably construed the release agreement at issue, we are not at liberty to substitute our preferred interpretation for the arbitrator’s.”

It does seem nearly impossible to square Justice Kagan’s language in Sutter, instructing courts to confirm arbitration awards whether “good, bad or ugly” and even if containing “grave error,” with this Dewan opinion from the Fourth Circuit.  While the insurer in Sutter moved to vacate under a legitimate FAA basis (that the arbitrator exceeded his power), and the company in this case moved to vacate claiming “manifest disregard,” the same standard should apply to all claims that arbitrators got the law wrong: as long as the arbitrator even arguably construed the contract, that construction holds.

**Finally, a short update on a previous post.  In April, the Ninth Circuit ducked the question of whether California’s Broughton-Cruz rule was preempted by the FAA.  (That rule exempted claims for public injunctive relief from arbitration under California law.)  Last week, however, the Ninth Circuit determined that Broughton-Cruz is preempted.  Ferguson v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2013 WL 5779514.  The court relied on Concepcion as well as Marmet Health Care Center, and Mastrubuono to reach its result.