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Archive for the ‘Vacate Award | Evident Partiality’ Category

The Repeat Player, Arbitration Providers, Evident Partiality, and the Ninth Circuit

November 18th, 2019 Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Providers, Award Vacated, Confirmation of Awards, Evident Partiality, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Repeat Players, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Vacate Award | Evident Partiality, Vacatur No Comments »
Disclosure | Evident Partiality | Repeat Player

Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) Section 10 permits Courts to vacate awards “where there was evident partiality. . . in the arbitrators. . . .” 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(2). If an arbitrator fails to disclose an ownership interest in an arbitration provider, which has a nontrivial, repeat player relationship with a party, should the award be vacated for evident partiality?

What constitutes evident partiality and under what circumstances is a controversial and sometimes elusive topic. We’ve written about it extensively over the years, including here, here, here, and here, as well as in other publications. The author has briefed, argued, or both, a number of U.S. Courts of Appeals and federal district court cases on the subject over the years, including, among others, Certain Underwriting Members of Lloyds of London v. State of Florida, Dep’t of Fin. Serv., 892 F.3d 501 (2018); and Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co. v. Home Ins. Co., 429 F.3d 640 (2005).

The most recent significant evident partiality development is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s 2-1 decision in Monster Energy Co. v. City Beverages, LLC, ___ F.3d ___, No. 17-55813, slip op. (9th Cir. Oct. 22, 2019), a case that involved an award made in favor of a repeat player party in an administered arbitration. Monster held that an arbitrator who failed to disclose his ownership interest in an arbitration provider was guilty of evident partiality because the arbitration provider had nontrivial business relationship with the repeat player party.

The Repeat Player Problem

In administered arbitration the (inevitable) existence of repeat players raises important questions that bear on evident partiality. Repeat players are parties who use the services of an arbitration provider on a regular basis, and therefore are a source of repeat business for the provider.

Arbitrators who are part of an arbitration provider’s appointment pool have earned their appointments by satisfying certain criteria set by the arbitration provider, and may also be trained by the arbitration provider. Ordinarily they are not employees of the arbitration provider, and, at least ostensibly, are independent from the arbitration provider.

But the economic interests of these arbitrators are aligned with those of the arbitration provider. What’s good for the arbitration provider is generally good for the arbitration provider’s pool of arbitrators. Repeat business is good for arbitration providers, just as it is good for lawyers and others.

Let’s assume that an arbitrator appointed in an arbitration administered by provider X has never before served as an arbitrator for parties A and B. If the contract between A and B is a form contract used by Party A that appoints X to administer arbitrations, and the contract concerns a subject matter in which disputes are fairly common (e.g., a consumer, employment, or franchise matter), then the arbitrator knows or has reason to know that the customer is either a repeat player or is likely to be one in the not too distant future.

If party B is, for example, a consumer, employee, or franchisee, and is not a repeat player, then one might suggest that our hypothetical arbitrator has at least an indirect interest in the outcome of the arbitration, specifically, one that would be best served by an outcome favoring party A, the repeat player.

That creates a potential evident partiality problem, for to be neutral, arbitrators have to be not only independent, and unbiased, but also disinterested. To be disinterested, the arbitrator cannot have have “a personal or financial stake in the outcome of the arbitration.” Certain Underwriting Members, 892 F.3d at 510 (citations and quotations omitted).

Does the kind of indirect and general financial or personal interest in the outcome described above, without more, establish evident partiality? It should not, although arbitrators are well-advised to disclose the existence of such an indirect or general financial or personal interests.

We think an argument for evident partiality based solely on an arbitrator having reason to believe that one of the parties is a repeat player with respect to the arbitration provider’s services would prove too much. Carried to its logical conclusion it would destroy, or at least severely diminish, the utility of the arbitration-provider-administered arbitration model in a large number of cases.

But that doesn’t mean that administered-arbitration awards in favor of repeat players and against non-repeat-players are immune from evident partiality challenge in all circumstances. Monster Energy provides an example and may be a harbinger of closer scrutiny of repeat player evident partiality challenges. 

We discuss the majority opinion in Monster Energy below. In a future post or posts, we will discuss the dissenting opinion, what to make of the case, and how it might (or not) influence how other courts address repeat-player-related issues that may arise in future cases.

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