Arbitration is not a perfect process for resolving disputes, but neither is court adjudication. One advantage of court adjudication is a fairly rigorous standard of review: appellate courts generally review the trial court’s factual findings for clear error and legal conclusions de novo. By contrast, courts review arbitration awards under the very deferential standards of review prescribed by Sections 10 and 11 of the Federal Arbitration Act. The trade-off is one of informality, speed and reduced expense for a heightened risk that the decision maker will commit unreviewable legal and factual errors — even some pretty egregious ones.
But every so often an arbitration award can be so far off the mark that one of the parties is deprived of the benefit of the bargain it made when it agreed to arbitrate. These are not cases where the arbitrators merely did a shoddy job, but ones where the arbitrators did not do the job the parties asked them to do. These are the cases that Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act was designed to address: ones where “the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final award on the subject matter was not made.”
Today we take a brief look at Raymond James Financial Serv., Inc. v. Bishop, ___ F.3d ___, No. 09-1038, slip op. (4th Cir. Feb. 22, 2010), a recent example of one of those rare cases. And we’ll see how how confusion about the scope of Section 10(a)(4) resulting – quite unintentionally – from the United States Supreme Court decision in Hall Street Assoc., L.L.C. v. Mattel , Inc, 552 U.S. ___, slip op. at __ (March 25, 2008) apparently motivated the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to decide the case solely on the ground that the arbitrators were not authorized to rule on the claim on which they admittedly based their award. (See, generally, “Hall Street Meets Pearl Street: Stolt-Nielsen and the Federal Arbitration Act’s New Section 10(a)(4).”)
The Court reached the right result, but its decision is of limited utility in future cases. For under many broad arbitration agreements and submissions the arbitrators have authority to rule on pretty much any claim that is related to the subject matter of the parties’ dispute. Abitrators may have the authority to resolve a claim, but may do so in a way that has not even a barely colorable justification under the law and facts.
We would have liked to see the Court rule not only on the authority issue, but also on two other grounds relied upon by the district court: manifest disregard of the law and the award’s failure to “draw its essence” from the parties’ agreements. As we have said before, we believe that those grounds are statutorily permitted by Section 10(a)(4), and that they provide a useful safety valve for addressing those (thankfully) rare cases where the arbitrators resolve a dispute within the scope of their authority, but do so in a way that completely deprives one of the parties of the benefit of its arbitration agreement. Continue Reading »