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]

First, SCOTUSblog referenced “arbitration nation” last fall, which was flattering.  Then last week the Ninth Circuit declared: “we have become an arbitration nation.”   That was basically the title of my first post on this blog seven years ago!  (“We are becoming an arbitration nation.”) I am going to turn up the  Janet Jackson  (“Rhythm Nation”) and feel smugly validated while I draft the rest of this post.  Because there is more to talk about than just the catchy phrase spreading far and wide.  Three federal circuits have vacated arbitration awards this month, giving new hope to parties who are trying to vacate awards and offering cautionary tales to arbitrators.

Aspic Eng’g & Constr. Co. v. ECC Centcom Constructors2019 WL 333339 (9th Cir. Jan. 28, 2019), dealt with a subcontractor constructing army facilities in Afghanistan.  The subcontractor claimed it was owed significant funds after the project was terminated for convenience by the U.S. government.  It proceeded to arbitration against the prime contractor, and an arbitrator awarded the subcontractor just over $1,000,000.  The prime contractor petitioned to vacate the award.

Both the district court and Ninth Circuit found that the award should be vacated.  The appellate court found the arbitrator exceeded his power within the meaning of Section 10 (a)(4) by issuing a “completely irrational” award.  And what made it completely irrational in the court’s view?  It was the fact that the arbitrator explicitly refused to enforce material provisions of the parties’ subcontract because the Arbitrator concluded  “it was not reasonable to expect that Afghanistan subcontractors would be able to conform to the strict and detailed requirements of general contractors on U.S. Federal projects.”    The court found that the resulting award directly conflicted with the parties’ subcontract.  “By concluding that [subcontractor] need not comply with the FAR requirements, the Arbitrator exceeded his authority and failed to draw the essence of the Award from the Subcontracts…Such an award is ‘irrational.'”

In the opinion’s conclusion, the court reminds us that it is more than just a rubber stamp for arbitral awards:

We have become an arbitration nation.  An increasing number of private disputes are resolved not by courts, but by arbitrators.  Although courts play a limited role in reviewing arbitral awards, our duty remains an important one.  When an arbitrator disergards the plain text of a contract without legal justification simply to reach a result that he believes is just, we must intervene.

The Ninth Circuit was not the only federal circuit court of appeals to vacate an arbitration award this month.  The Fifth Circuit vacated an award in Southwest Airlines Co. v. Local 555, Transport Workers Union of America, 2019 WL 139247 (5th Cir. Jan. 9, 2019) for a similar reason.  The court found “the arbitrator ignored the unambiguous terms of the CBA.”  In particular, the arbitrator treated the final execution date of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) as the effective date, even though the record established the parties had ratified it weeks earlier. The court found the arbitrator’s analysis “was not an arguable construction of the CBA and instead amounted to the arbitrator’s own brand of industrial justice.”  Indeed, it introduced the case by saying “this case is an example of when an arbitrator goes too far.”  (The allowable bases for vacatur in this case were governed by the Railway Labor Act, and are similar to those in the FAA.)

The third case comes from the Federal Circuit, in Koester v. U.S. Park Police, 2019 WL 81105 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 3, 2019).   In that labor case, an arbitrator had upheld the park police’s decision to remove an officer from service.  But the court found the arbitrator abused his discretion by refusing to consider evidence, then vacated the award and remanded back to the arbitrator.  (Vacatur in Koester is not governed by the narrow standards of the Federal Arbitration Act, but instead by by the less deferential standards in a federal statute specific to labor relations with government employees.)

In the Midwest, however, arbitration awards fared just fine under the FAA. In fact, the Eighth Circuit un-vacated an award in Great American Ins. Co. v. Russell, 2019 WL 387032 (8th Cir. Jan. 31, 2019).   That case involved a farmer’s claim that his crop insurer wrongfully denied his claim for damage to his corn crop.  A panel of three arbitrators awarded the farmer $1,433,008.  The insurer moved to vacate the award under the Federal Arbitration Act, claiming the arbitrators violated applicable federal regulations that require the arbitrators to make factual findings, including the basis for any award and breakdown any award by claim.  The insurer argued that because the panel did not break the award down by county or otherwise explain the damage calculation, the award must be vacated.  The district court agreed and vacated the award, but the Eighth Circuit reversed, finding “nothing in the regulations required the panel to segregate this claim into multiple separate claims.”

In today’s post I recount an epic battle between the Rules of Professional Conduct (tagline: saving clients from unscrupulous lawyers for over 100 years!) and the Uniform Arbitration Act (tagline: saving arbitration from hostile judges for 60 years!) in the Supreme Court of California.  Spoiler alert: the Rules of Professional Conduct win.

The story in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP v. J-M Manufacturing Co., 2018 WL 4137103 (Cal. Aug. 30, 2018), begins with a “large law firm” [ed: with too many names] taking over the defense of J-M in a qui tam action in federal court in March of 2010.  The problem was that one of the public entities that had been identified as a real party in interest in the qui tam case was also a client of the firm (for employment matters).  Because both clients had signed engagement letters with general language waiving potential conflicts, the firm concluded it could take on the qui tam action.

The SMRH firm defended J-M for just one year before its employment client moved to disqualify it.  In that time, the firm had put in 10,000 hours defending J-M, and was still owed over one million dollars in fees.  The district court disqualified the firm based on the firm’s failure to adequately inform the employment client and J-M of the adversity before obtaining waivers, as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.

At that point, the law firm sought its million dollars of unpaid fees from J-M in a state court action, and J-M in turn sought disgorgement of the two million dollars it had already paid.  The law firm successfully moved to compel arbitration, with the trial court dismissing J-M’s argument that the conflict of interest made the whole contract illegal and unenforceable. (And, the Court of Appeals refused a discretionary review which could have avoided the wasted fees of the arbitration.)

A panel of arbitrators awarded the law firm more than $1.3 million.  The parties were then back in state court with cross-motions to confirm and vacate the award.  The trial court confirmed the award.  However, the Court of Appeal reversed.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of California agreed that the arbitration award must be vacated.  It rested its decision on precedent from 1949, noting that “an agreement to arbitrate is invalid and unenforceable if it is made as part of a contract that is invalid and unenforceable because it violates public policy.”  In this case, the court found that the Rules of Professional Conduct were an expression of public policy, such that a violation of those rules could render an arbitration agreement void.  And it also found that the firm’s failure to give both of its clients notice of the actual adversity, and obtain informed consent of the representation, was a violation that tainted the entire contract and made it illegal.  (For you ethics geeks, the rule violated was 3-310(C)(3).)

Because the contract between the law firm and J-M was unenforceable, the court found the firm was “not entitled to the benefit of the arbitrators’ decision” and the parties could resume “where they were before the case took its unwarranted detour to arbitration.”  (Not sure why the court refused to say it was vacating the arbitration award.)  But, don’t shed too many tears for the lawyers.  The law firm will be able to argue in the trial court regarding whether it is entitled to any of its fees under the equitable doctrine of quantum meruit.  (Two judges dissented from that last part, finding that the ethical conflict should prevent the firm from recovering at all.)

I leave it to other blogs to discuss the ethical issues for lawyers present here, and to therapists and firm counsel to address the rising panic that lawyers may feel when reading this opinion.  For my purpose, this case is further demonstration that the type of arbitration agreement that is most susceptible to arguments of invalidity is the one between an attorney and client.  (Recall the recent decision in Maine.)  It is also interesting in that it does not discuss whether J-M “waived” its objection to arbitrability at all by participating in the arbitration, indeed there is no discussion of whether or how often J-M raised its objection during the arbitration.  That is a sharp contrast to the rule cited by the 9th Circuit in the Asarco decision (summarized last post), and an example of how inconsistent the rules are regarding waiver.

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 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.

 

What could be a better subject for a Black Friday weekend post than the Cabbage Patch Kids??!  Especially if you are old enough to remember the 1980s…  Whether you loved or hated the smushed-face dolls, the point of this post is that the 11th Circuit confirmed an arbitration award in their favor, showing significant deference to the arbitrator.  Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. v. Jakks Pacific, Inc., 2017 WL 5508498 (11th Cir. Nov. 17, 2017).

The dispute was between the company that owns the Cabbage Patch Kids (CPK) brand and a company to which it licensed the intellectual property during 2012-2014 (the licensee).  As the end of the license agreement was approaching, CPK selected a new company to receive the license in 2015, and let them get started creating the new line of toys, so that the new line could launch right away in 2015.  The licensee claimed that was a breach of the agreement and started an arbitration.

The arbitrator concluded that CPK had not breached the agreement and ordered that the licensee had to repay CPK over a million dollars in unpaid royalties.  The licensee moved to vacate the award.  Curiously, it made arguments under both the Georgia Arbitration Code and the FAA, and the 11th Circuit considered them all.  [Maybe showing that New Hampshire was onto something in declaring the FAA does not preempt state law on vacatur?]

Under the Georgia Code, the licensee argued the arbitrator had manifestly disregarded the law by ignoring the parol evidence rule (and accepting extrinsic evidence regarding the agreement).  [Manifest disregard is a statutory basis for vacatur under the Georgia act, unlike the federal act.]  The court found there was no concrete evidence that the arbitrator purposely disregarded the law, which is the standard.  Instead, the transcript and award showed the arbitrator had understood Georgia law as instructing that the purpose of contract interpretation is to effectuate the parties’ intent, and that’s what he tried to do in reviewing the extrinsic evidence.  So, even “assuming the arbitrator incorrectly applied the parol evidence rule,” the court found he “simply made a mistake.”  That does not rise to the level of manifest disregard.

Under the FAA, the licensee separately argued that the arbitrator had exceeded his powers.  After quoting the standard from Sutter, the court quickly concluded that because the arbitrator did interpret the parties’ contract, it does not matter “whether he got its meaning right or wrong,” the award must be confirmed.

In a decision that is very skinny on the facts, a unanimous Nevada Supreme Court recently un-vacated a significant arbitration award in a dispute over dental franchises.  In Half Dental Franchise, LLC v. Houchin, 2017 WL 3326425 (Nev. Aug. 3, 2017), the court found the arbitrators did not exceed their power in exercising authority over non-signatories.

The dispute began when Half Dental Franchise filed an arbitration demand against Precision Dental Professionals and Robert Houchin (among others).  They asserted breaches of contract and tort claims (including tortious interference with contract and usurping corporate opportunities).  A three-arbitrator panel found that both those respondents were proper parties, and granted Half Dental about $6.7M in damage.  Houchin filed a motion to vacate the arbitration award  The district court granted the motion, finding that the arbitrators exceeded their power in finding authority over Houchin, and vacated the award.

On appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court found that the district court improperly conducted a de novo review of the arbitrator’s decision finding Houchin bound to the arbitration agreement by estoppel.  (Precision Dental was also a non-signatory to the franchise agreement that the arbitrator found was bound to arbitrate based on estoppel.)  The court noted that under Nevada’s state arbitration statutes, the district court should have asked simply whether there was “colorable justification for the outcome.”  Finding that the arbitrator’s citation to contemporaneous documents provided at least colorable justification for estoppel, the appellate court found no basis for vacatur.  The “colorable justification” standard was especially appropriate because the parties’ arbitration agreement contained a delegation clause, authorizing the arbitrator to “decide any questions relating in any way to the parties’ agreement or claimed agreement to arbitrate.”  (Otherwise, the question of whether non-signatories are bound is presumptively for a court to determine.)  For those reasons, the supreme court reversed the district court’s decision.

What’s the lesson here?  It might be that dentistry is a very competitive field, but it is also that if an award is vacated at the trial court, it’s usually worth bringing an appeal.

 

So you’ve got an arbitration award, what next? In other types of civil cases, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rules) control service, and they have greatly reduced the role of U.S. Marshals in serving parties. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(c). But enter the Federal Arbitration Act § 9 and § 12 (FAA). When a party seeks to confirm, vacate, or modify an arbitration award, § 9 and § 12 say that a nonresident party must be “served by the marshal of any district within which the adverse party may be found in like manner as other process of the court.” Which set of requirements controls here?

Since adequate service is necessary for the court to have personal jurisdiction, the question of service has been litigated in a few district courts, but no federal appellate courts. See Logan & Kanawha Coal Co.v. Detherage Coal Sales, LLC, 789 F. Supp. 2d 716, 718 (2011) (chronicling the courts that have analyzed the issue). Some courts, like the D.C. District Court in VentureForth Holdings LLC v. Joseph, have found that service consistent with the Rules also satisfies FAA § 9 and § 12. Those courts rely on the final phrase of § 9 or § 12 that says, “in like manner as other process of the court.” They read that phrase as indicating that arbitration award confirmation or modification service should follow the same rules as other civil suits. They derisively dismiss the requirement in §§ 9 and 12 as an artifact or an anachronism.

However, some courts, like the Southern District of West Virginia in Logan & Kanawha v. Detherage Coal Sales, require service by U.S. Marshal. The first and primary argument for those courts is that the plain language of the FAA §§ 9 and 12 requires service by U.S. Marshal. When confronted with the apparent tension between the Rules and the FAA, they point to the fact that Congress has not yet repealed the marshal requirement in the FAA even if the new Rules reduce the role of U.S. Marshals. The Rules, in fact, still retain the option of using U.S. Marshals to serve other parties, so a court could order service by U.S. Marshal without violating Rule 4.

All in all, there are some district courts—but not circuit courts—talking about the potential conflict between the service requirements in the Rules and the FAA, and they do not all agree. There is no circuit law on it yet, but at least some of the district courts seem content to allow Congress’ anachronism to control current outcomes. The safest bet for any party seeking to confirm, vacate, or modify an arbitration award in federal court is to use a U.S. Marshal for service, or to get an express waiver of that requirement from the opposing party.

ArbitrationNation thanks Claire Williams, a law student at the University of Minnesota Law School, for researching and drafting this post.

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A nonexhaustive list of courts not requiring marshal service

  • VentureForth Holdings LLC v. Joseph, 80 F. Supp. 3d 147, 148 (D.D.C. 2015) (“[T]his Court holds that service of a nonresident complies with § 9 of the FAA if service is provided in accordance with Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.”)
  • United Cmty. Bank v. Campbell, No. 1:10 CV 79, 2011 WL 815684, at *2 (W.D.N.C. Mar. 1, 2011) (The Court finds that the Bank properly effected service pursuant to Rule 4(e).)
  • Elevation Franchise Ventures, LLC v. Rosario, No. 1:13-CV- 719 AJT/JFA, 2013 WL 5962984, at *4 (E.D. Va. Nov. 6, 2013) (“Service of process upon an individual is governed in this court by Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(e)(1) . . . .”)
  • Hancor, Inc. v. R &R Eng’g Prod., Inc., 381 F. Supp. 2d 12, 15 (D.P.R. 2005) (relying on Reed & Martin, Inc. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp.)
  • Litigants in the Second Circuit should be aware of Reed & Martin, Inc. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 439 F.2d 1268, 1277 (2d Cir. 1971). In it, the Second Circuit analyzed the same phrase “in like manner” that courts point to when arguing that service in accordance with Rule 4 is sufficient. The court held that “[t]he phrase ‘in like manner as other process of the court’ found in § 9 of the Arbitration Act refers to Fed. R. Civ. P. 4 on the accomplishment of appropriate service, not to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(a). . . .” While this quote appears to support service in accordance with the Rules, there are two big caveats. First, the court was addressing an issue on which the FAA is silent (time to answer). Second, this case was decided in 1971 when Rule 4 required “[s]ervice of all process shall be made by a United States marshal . . .” so at the time there was no conflict between the Rules and the FAA and therefore the court could not have addressed the current tension between the FAA and the Rules.

 

A nonexhaustive list of courts requiring marshal service:

  • Johnson v. Drake, No. 3:16-CV- 1993-L, 2017 WL 1173275, at *6 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 30, 2017) (“[C]ourts cannot simply disregard the plain language of 9 U.S.C. § 9 . . . .”)
  • PTA-FLA, Inc. v. ZTE USA, Inc., No. 3:11-CV- 510-J- 32JRK, 2015 WL 12819186, at *6 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 5, 2015) (“[S]ervice on nonresidents must be made via marshal. . . “)
  • Logan & Kanawha Coal Co. v. Detherage Coal Sales, LLC, 789 F. Supp. 2d 716, 722 (S.D.W. Va. 2011)
  • Nu-Best Franchising, Inc. v. Motion Dynamics, Inc., No. 805 CV 507T27TGW, 2006 WL 1428319, at *3 (M.D. Fla. May 17, 2006) (“Plaintiffs were required to serve notice through the United States Marshal.”)
  • Int’l Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 Employee Benefit Funds v. Getty Contracting LLC, No. CIV. 2:14-7799 KM, 2015 WL 4461512, at *2 (D.N.J. July 20, 2015) (“If it is a nonresident of New Jersey, Getty must be served via the U.S. Marshal in its home district.”)
  • Dobco, Inc. v. Mery Gates, Inc., No. CIV. 06-0699 (HAA), 2006 WL 2056799, at *2 (D.N.J. July 21, 2006) (“Rather, Dobco had an obligation to have Mery Gates served by a marshal, as the strict language of the statute provides.”)

Three state supreme courts tackled arbitration law in recent weeks: Alabama, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.  Rhode Island reversed a construction arbitration award because it disagreed with the arbitrator’s analysis.  North Carolina found that an arbitration agreement in a doctor-patient setting was unenforceable as a breach of the doctor’s fiduciary duty.  And Alabama strictly enforced an arbitral venue, even though that precluded class action.

Continuing its streak of hewing closely to the lead of federal courts on arbitration, the Supreme Court of Alabama held that plaintiffs have to arbitrate with the Better Business Bureau, even though the BBB does not conduct class action arbitration proceedings.  University Toyota & University Chevrolet Buick GMC v. Hardeman, _ So. 3d __, 2017 WL 382651 (Ala. Jan. 27, 2017).  The plaintiffs were a putative class of customers harmed by two car dealerships’ decision to stop honoring their earlier agreement to provide free oil changes.  The arbitration clause between the dealerships and purchasers called for arbitration of all disputes pursuant to the FAA, and said “either party may demand arbitration by filing with the Better Business Bureau.”  When the plaintiffs filed their demand, the BBB responded that it did not conduct class arbitrations.    The plaintiffs then withdrew their demand and filed in court, asking either to keep their fight in court or go to a forum that allowed class arbitration.  The trial court sent the plaintiffs to the AAA to decide whether class actions were available.  On appeal, the supreme court reversed in a 7-1 decision.  The majority quoted heavily from SCOTUS decisions stating that arbitration agreements should be enforced according to their terms, and found that the BBB forum was an integral part of the arbitration agreement that must be given effect.  The lone dissenter argued that, because the availability of class arbitration was for the arbitrator, it should be decided by a forum that at least retains that option.

Without any consideration of the Federal Arbitration Act, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island vacated an arbitration award.  Nappa Construction Management, LLC v. Flynn, __ A.3d __, 2017 WL 281812 (R.I. Jan. 23, 2017). (Maybe an allergy to the FAA is contagious… remember nearby New Hampshire last year?)  In a dispute between the owners of a automobile repair facility and the construction company that was hired to build it, the arbitrator issued an award that analyzed the parties’ contract and found the construction company was owed money.  The trial court refused to vacate the award, finding the arbitrator grounded his analysis in the contract and did not manifestly disregard the law.  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island cited only cases from its own court, including labor cases, and found that the arbitrator had exceeded his authority (and the award failed to draw its essence from the agreement) by finding that the owners had effectively terminated the contract, when there was no evidence that the owners actually terminated the contract.  The court also accused the award of reaching an “irrational result.”  Two justices dissented, noting the “exceptionally deferential standard of review” for arbitration awards.  They did not, however, cite to the line from Sutter, as I would have, that even “grave error” by an arbitrator is not sufficient to vacate an award if the arbitrator in fact analyzed the contract.  (Maybe no one argued the FAA applied?  A commercial construction contract would almost certainly involve interstate commerce…)

Finally, the Supreme Court of North Carolina refused to enforce the arbitration agreement between a doctor and patient, finding that the agreement “was obtained as a result of defendants’ breach of fiduciary duty that they owed to” the patient.  King v. Bryant, __ S.E.2d __, 2017 WL 382910 (N.C. Jan. 27, 2017).  The patient had brought a medical malpractice action against his surgeon, and the surgeon tried to enforce the arbitration agreement between them.  The arbitration agreement called for application of the FAA and arbitration under health care procedures of the AAA.

The N.C. trial court refused to compel arbitration, finding the agreement was only an “agreement to agree,” and started off a crazy game of appeals court-district court ping pong involving this case.  The court of appeals reversed and remanded.  On second thought, the trial court refused to enforce the agreement because the surgeon had a fiduciary duty to disclose the arbitration agreement to his patient as a material term, and because he did not it was unenforceable.  The court of appeals affirmed, noting the application of the FAA, but finding the agreement unconscionable.  The supreme court then remanded to the trial court for further findings of fact regarding the existence of a physician-patient relationship when the agreement was signed, and the trial court complied.  Finally, the case returned to the supreme court, which held that the doctor owed a fiduciary duty to the patient and breached it “by failing to make full disclosure of the nature and import of the arbitration agreement to him at or before the time that it was presented for his signature.”  Recognizing the possibility of an argument that its holding is preempted by the FAA, the court noted “we would have reached the same result on these facts with respect to any agreement that substantially affected [the patient’s] substantive legal rights.”  However, the opinion cites no N.C. cases to support that statement, which may be fatal under the DirecTV analysis.  Two justices wrote separate dissents, based largely on FAA preemption.  (“This jiggery-pokery is precisely the type of impermissble ‘rationalization’ admonished by the United States Supreme Court. Such a tortured attempt to obviate the FAA fails.”)

What is the take away here?  It is that there is still a huge amount of variation in how a given arbitration dispute will be handled, depending on what court hears the dispute.  And the preemption rules set out in Concepcion and DirecTV are either not well understood, or are being intentionally avoided.