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Posts Tagged ‘Ambiguous Contract’

Arbitration and Mediation FAQs: Do Arbitrators Necessarily Exceed their Powers by Making an Award that Conflicts with the Unambiguous Terms of the Parties’ Agreement?

November 11th, 2014 Appellate Practice, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Contract Interpretation, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, New York Court of Appeals, New York State Courts, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Practice and Procedure, Small Business B-2-B Arbitration, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Arbitration and Mediation FAQs: Do Arbitrators Necessarily Exceed their Powers by Making an Award that Conflicts with the Unambiguous Terms of the Parties’ Agreement?

We’ve addressed on many occasions the Enterprise WheelStolt-Nielsen/Oxford contract-based outcome review standard, which permits courts to vacate awards when they do not “draw their essence” from the parties’ agreement. Under that standard the “sole question is whether the arbitrators (even arguably) interpreted the parties’ contract, not whether [they] got its meaning right or wrong.” See Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064, 2068 (2013) (parenthetical in original). (See, e.g.,  Loree Reins. & Arb. L. F. posts here, here, here, here, here & here.)

While exceedingly deferential, the standard is not toothless. Arbitration awards that disregard or contravene the clear and unmistakable terms of a contract are subject to vacatur under it. See Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 676 (panel had “no occasion to ascertain the parties’ intention in the present case because the parties were in complete agreement regarding their intent.”) (quotation omitted); United Paperworkers v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 38 (1987) (“The arbitrator may not ignore the plain language of the contract. . . .”). That’s because an arbitrator who makes an award that lacks “any contractual basis” has not even arguably interpreted the contract, and therefore has strayed from his or her task. See Oxford, 133 S. Ct. at 2069 (distinguishing Stolt-Nielsen); Stolt-Nielsen, 559 U.S. at 668-69, 672; Misco, 484 U.S. at 38.

An arbitrator whose award contradicts the unambiguous provisions of the parties’ contract may—but will not necessarily—exceed her powers. The answer depends on what the agreement says, what the award says and whether the award is at least arguably grounded in the agreement.

Whether or not a contract or contract term is “ambiguous” depends on whether it is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning. See, e.g., White v. Continental Cas. Co., 9 N.Y.3d 264, 267 (2007); Greenfield v. Philles Records, 98 N.Y.2d 562, 570-71 (2002). When a contract is unambiguous, a court can interpret it as a matter of law; if it is ambiguous, its meaning is a question of fact for trial.

Can the Interpretation of the Arbitrators be “Unreasonable,” yet still Colorable or Plausible?

The legal standard for lack of ambiguity is that there be only one “reasonable” interpretation of the contract terms, not that there are no other at least barely plausible or barely colorable interpretations of what the contract might mean. In probably the majority of contract interpretation cases concerning alleged contract ambiguity, each litigant supports its position with good-faith, reasonable arguments for why the disputed contract terms are allegedly susceptible to one or more than one meaning. Whenever courts determine that a contract is unambiguous, that conclusion necessarily means that the losing party’s interpretation of the contract is unreasonable as a matter of law. Continue Reading »