When a party is on the wrong end of an arbitration award that he, she or it thinks is fundamentally unfair, tainted by impropriety, or disconnected from the agreement the arbitrator was supposed to interpret and apply, the first question that comes to mind is whether there might be some form of recourse available. In court, the usual avenue of relief from an adverse judgment or order is an appeal.
Can a losing party to an arbitration award governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”) appeal it in court? Since private arbitration is an alternative to public, government-sponsored court litigation, since the court system plays an important role in enforcing arbitration agreements, since both arbitration and court litigation share at least some of the same attributes and since in the U.S. procedural due process and the primacy of the rule of law are as dear to us as baseball and apple pie, it is natural to assume that one should be able to appeal an adverse arbitration award.
But one cannot—in any meaningful sense of the word—“appeal” an arbitration award to a court. In court litigation an appeal involves judicial review by an appellate court under which a panel of judges reviews trial-court rulings on questions of law independently—that is, as if the appellate court were deciding the question for itself in the first instance. The appellate court reviews the trial court’s findings of fact on a “clearly erroneous” or “clear error” standard of review, that is, paying a certain degree of deference to the finder of fact (the jury or trial judge). While appellate review thus does not involve a retrial on the merits, it is broad and searching, particularly where outcomes turn solely on questions of law.
The FAA does not authorize courts to review arbitration awards under an appellate standard of review, even if the parties consent to a court applying such a standard. Parties can agree before or after a dispute arises to an arbitration procedure that empowers another arbitrator or panel of arbitrators to review an award under an appellate or some other standard of review, but arbitration awards are subject to very limited and deferential review by courts and then only on a few narrow grounds.
The FAA Award-Enforcement Process
The FAA award enforcement process permits either party to make an application to vacate, modify or correct an award, or an application to “confirm” it, that is, enter judgment on it. Since the deadline for applying to vacate, modify or correct an award is considerably shorter than that for confirming an award, in many cases, parties who are seeking relief from the award make the initial application. If a putative challenging party does not timely seek relief, and the other party seeks confirmation after the expiration of the deadline for making an application to vacate, modify or correct the award, then the challenging party is time-barred from asserting grounds for vacatur or modification, even simply as affirmative defenses to confirmation. (See, e.g., L. Reins. & Arb. Law Forum post here.)
Let’s assume a party makes a timely motion to vacate an award. What will likely then happen is the other party will cross-move to confirm the award. The burden on the party seeking confirmation is pretty modest. Generally the party moving to confirm will need to show that the parties: (a) agreed to arbitrate; (b) consented to entry of judgment on the award; (c) appointed an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators; and (d) submitted the dispute to the arbitrators, who issued the award. The award is presumed valid and the court does not review its outcome or substance.
Once the modest prerequisites for confirmation have been established by a properly supported petition or motion to confirm an award, then the court “must grant” confirmation “unless the award is vacated, modified or corrected” under FAA Sections 10 or 11. 9 U.S.C. § 9. Thus, apart from those relatively rare cases where a party can show that the parties never agreed to arbitrate at all (and that the challenging party did not waive that defense), or perhaps never even impliedly consented to entry of judgment on the award, the only grounds on which the losing party can oppose confirmation are those set forth in Section 10 and 11.
The only exception might be if the award interprets the contract in a way that causes it to violate a well-defined and explicit public policy, or if the remedy the arbitrator awards violates the criminal law or requires one of the parties to do so. For example, one would not expect a court to enter judgment on an award that purported to authorize the prevailing party to inflict bodily harm on the losing party or vice-versa. That principle is simply an application of the contract-law rule that courts will not enforce contracts that violate public policy. See, generally, W. R. Grace & Co. v. Rubber Workers, 461 U.S. 757, 766 (1983); United Food & Commercial Workers Int’l Union v. King Soopers, 743 F.3d 1310, 1315 (10th Cir. 2014).