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Evident Partiality | Vacating, Modifying, and Correcting Awards | Businessperson’s Federal Arbitration Act FAQ Guide | Part I

November 23rd, 2021 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Law, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Businessperson's FAQ Guide to the Federal Arbitration Act, Challenging Arbitration Awards, Evident Partiality, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Grounds for Vacatur, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Petition to Vacate Award, Post-Award Federal Arbitration Act Litigation, Practice and Procedure, Section 10, Vacate Award | 10(a)(2), Vacate Award | Evident Partiality, Vacatur No Comments »

INTRODUCTION

Evident Partiality Section 10(a)(2) of the Federal Arbitration Act authorizes courts to vacate awards “where there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators, or either of them. . . .” 9 U.S.C. 10(a)(2). The next few instalments will focus on evident partiality, a later one on corruption.

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 hereherehere, 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).

Evident partiality has been the subject of numerous judicial decisions setting forth various standards and applying them to a wide range of fact patterns.  The decisions are not easy to reconcile (some may be irreconcilable) and the standards are often of limited utility. Matters are complicated by judicially created rules concerning disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and the consequences that may or may not flow from those rules.

But “evident partiality” may be easier to grasp if we focus not on abstract standards or ethical constructs, but on the parties’ reasonable expectations of neutrality. Surprisingly, many courts address the subject of “evident partiality” without expressly discussing this important consideration, even when it appears to have been a significant but unstated part of the decision-making calculus. Others have expressly used the parties’ agreement and attendant expectations of neutrality as a guidepost.

Understanding the parties’ reasonable expectations of partiality is only half the battle. One must also understand how those expectations are enforced through judicially created rules governing disclosure and waiver of conflicts of interest, and the relevance of those rules to a motion to vacate an award under Federal Arbitration Act Section 10(a)(2).

In this instalment our focus is on the parties’ reasonable expectations of arbitrator neutrality. Later instalments will address evident partiality standards and how they are supposed to enforce reasonable expectations of neutrality without undermining arbitral finality; differences between evident partiality standards and judicial impartiality standards; the differing expectations of arbitral neutrality that may attend tripartite arbitration; and how evident partiality standards may implement and enforce those differing expectations; arbitrator disclosure procedures and requirements, which are designed to implement and enforce evident partiality standards; and examples of what does and does not constitute evident partiality.

EVIDENT PARTIALITY: PARTIES’ REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS OF NEUTRALITY

The principal purpose of the Federal Arbitration Act is to enforce arbitration agreements as written.  See, e.g., First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 947 (1995).  Parties are largely free to structure their arbitration agreements as they see fit, and that freedom extends to selecting the decision makers, establishing their qualifications, and agreeing on how impartial they should be.  See National Football League Mgmt. Council v. National Football League Players Ass’n, 820 F.3d 527, 548 (2d Cir. 2016) (“[A]rbitration is a matter of contract, and consequently, the parties to an arbitration can ask for no more impartiality than inheres in the method they have chosen.”) (citing cases); Merit Ins. Co. v. Leatherby Ins. Co., 714 F.2d 673, 679 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 1009 (1983) (Posner, J.) (“parties … choose their method of dispute resolution, and can ask no more impartiality than inherent in the method they have chosen.”) (citation omitted).

Inherent in the arbitral bargain is decision making, or at least decision tie breaking, by a neutral decision maker. Single arbitrators are required under the Federal Arbitration Act to be neutral unless the parties otherwise agree. See, e.g., Morelite v. N.Y.C. Dist. Council Carpenters, 748 F.2d 79, 81-85 (2d Cir. 1984). In tripartite arbitration, one arbitrator (usually designated the umpire, chair, or third arbitrator) is ordinarily required to be neutral, while party-appointed arbitrators are presumed to be non-neutral, except to the extent otherwise required by the parties’ arbitration agreement. See Certain Underwriting Members, 892 F.3d at 510-11; Sphere Drake Ins. v. All American Life Ins., 307 F.3d 617, 622 (7th Cir. 2002); Trustmark Ins. Co. v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co. (U.S.A.), 631 F.3d 869, 872-74 (7th Cir. 2011).

Arbitration provider rules, which may govern arbitrator qualifications in appropriate cases, may provide different rules. For example, the JAMS and American Arbitration Association rules presume all arbitrators on a tripartite panel to be neutral, unless the parties agree otherwise. JAMS Comprehensive Arbitration Rules & Procedures R. 7 (July 1, 2014); see also American Arbitration Association Commercial Arbitration Rules R-18(a) & (b) (October 1, 2013).

Section 10(a)(2) of the Federal Arbitration Act—which authorizes federal district courts to vacate arbitration awards “where there was evident partiality…in the arbitrators…”—imposes in part and enforces these neutrality requirements. Section 10(a)(2) establishes that parties who agree to arbitrate can legitimately expect that neutral arbitrators will meet a certain minimal standard of arbitral impartiality, and that arbitrators not appointed as neutrals can, in appropriate circumstances, be held to a substantial, material breach of a stipulated arbitrator qualification requirement related-to, but not necessarily coextensive with, neutrality. See Certain Underwriting Members, 892 F.3d at 510-11; Sphere Drake, 307 F.3d at 622; Trustmark631 F.3d at 872-74.

Many consider the requirement that an arbitrator be “neutral” to include two main components: the arbitrator must be (a) impartial and (b) independent. They also consider the requirement of impartiality to include a requirement that the arbitrator be “disinterested.”

While a case can be made for considering disinterestedness to be a component of impartiality, analyzing the two as separate components of neutrality promotes clarity and a more precise understanding of what comprises arbitrator neutrality. That, in turn, makes it easier for us to spot the presence or absence of neutrality in each case.

Evident Partiality: Independence

An arbitrator is independent when he or she is not directly or indirectly subject to the control of a party, potential witnesses, or the other arbitrators, is not affiliated with a party, does not act directly or indirectly in the interest of a party, and is otherwise not subject to undue influence or outside pressure. See, generally, Trout v. Organización Mundial De Boxeo, Inc., 965 F.3d 71, 80-81 (1st Cir. 2020); Demarco v. City of New York, 08-CV-3055 (RRM) (LB), slip op. at 8-9 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 23, 2011); American Arbitration Association, The Code of Ethics for Arbitrators in Commercial Disputes Canon 1B(2) (arbitrator should not accept appointment unless “fully satisfied. . . that he or she can serve independently from the parties, potential witnesses, and the other arbitrators. . . .”) (March 1, 2004).

For example, an arbitrator would not be independent were she an agent or employee of one of the parties.

Evident Partiality: Disinterestedness

“Disinterested” means “lacking a financial or other personal stake in the outcome.” Trustmark,  631 F.3d at 872-73 (citing Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868 (2009)); Certain Underwriting Members, 892 F.3d at 510; see Caperton, 556 U.S. at 876-81 (discussing cases). The requirement of “disinterest” was reflected in James Madison’s famous observation that “[n]o man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” The Federalist No. 10, p. 59 (J. Cooke ed. 1961) (J. Madison)); see Caperton, 556 U.S. at 876.

The rule that financial or personal interest spoils neutrality does not require proof that the decision-maker would be or was actually biased against or partial to one party or the other. It does not address whether the arbitrator actually has predispositions concerning any of the parties, witnesses, or issues.

It is prophylactic rule, based on human nature, that a person having a financial or personal interest in the outcome of a dispute cannot be considered neutral, even if the decision maker honestly believes that his or her interest in the dispute would or did affect his or her judgment, and even if it could be shown objectively that the decision maker could or did judge the dispute impartially and independently.

The rule serves two functions. First, all else equal, by disqualifying interested decision makers, it eliminates the risk that personal or financial interest will affect decision-maker neutrality. Without the rule the difficulty of proving actual bias would mean that decisions made by interested decision-makers could in many cases not be overturned because it would be difficult or impossible to prove that the interested decision maker was actually biased or partial.

Second, the rule helps encourage public confidence in decision-maker neutrality by disqualifying interested decision-makers.

Impartiality

To be neutral an arbitrator must not only be disinterested, but also impartial. See, e.g., Trustmark, 631 F.3d at 872-73; U.S.Care, Inc. v. Pioneer Life Ins. Co. of Ill., 244 F.Supp.2d 1057, 1062 (C.D. Cal., 2002). To be “impartial” means to be free from “bias or prejudice” in favor of one of the parties. See Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540, 550, 552 (1994).

In Liteky the U.S. Supreme Court explained, in a case concerning judicial partiality standards, that the terms “bias,” “prejudice” and “partiality” all connote a favorable or unfavorable disposition or opinion that is somehow wrongful or inappropriate, either because it is undeserved, or because it rests upon knowledge that the subject ought not to possess…or because it is excessive in degree….” 510 U.S. at 550, 552.

Arbitral or judicial predispositions may be formed as a result of any number things, and can be appropriate or inappropriate, reasonable or unreasonable. But such predispositions do not constitute “partiality,” bias or prejudice unless they are wrongful or inappropriate.

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of what “bias,” “prejudice” and “partiality” mean in the judicial context in Liteky is right in line with Section 10(a)(2) itself, which authorizes vacatur where the arbitrator is “guilty” of “evident partiality.” 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(2) (emphasis added).

Neutral versus Impartial: Terminology Glitches

Unfortunately, the terminology used by Section 10(a)(2) (and by courts interpreting it) is not always consistent with that used by arbitration providers and other arbitration professionals.

Section 10(a)(2) refers only to “evident partiality,” not neutrality. Under the terminology commonly employed by arbitrator providers, “evident partiality” would not encompass an arbitrator’s lack of independence from a party.

But courts generally, and we think correctly, consider evident partiality to include an evident personal or financial interest in the outcome of the dispute, an evident inappropriate predisposition in favor of or against a party, or an evident lack of independence.

The next instalment will begin with a discussion of how evident partiality standards are designed to enforce party expectations of neutrality without undermining arbitral finality.

Contacting the Author

If you have any questions about arbitration, arbitration-law, arbitration-related litigation, or this article, or if you wish to discuss whether the Loree Law Firm might be able to provide assistance with or representation in a particular legal matter, please contact the author, Philip Loree Jr., at (516) 941-6094 or at PJL1@LoreeLawFirm.com.

Philip J. Loree Jr. has more than 30 years of experience handling matters arising under the Federal Arbitration Act and in representing a wide variety of clients in arbitration, litigation, and arbitration-related litigation. He is licensed to practice law in New York and before certain federal district and federal appellate courts.  

ATTORNEY ADVERTISING NOTICE: Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Photo Acknowledgment

The photo featured in this post was licensed from Yay Images and is subject to copyright protection under applicable law.

Neutrality | Evident Partiality | Vacating, Modifying, and Correcting Arbitration Awards | Businessperson’s Federal Arbitration Act FAQ Guide | Part I

September 20th, 2021 Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Law, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Arbitrator Selection and Qualification Provisions, Businessperson's FAQ Guide to the Federal Arbitration Act, Challenging Arbitration Awards, Enforcing Arbitration Agreements, Ethics, Evident Partiality, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Grounds for Vacatur, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Party-Appointed Arbitrators, Practice and Procedure, Section 10, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Supreme Court, Vacate Award | 10(a)(2), Vacate Award | Corruption, Vacate Award | Evident Partiality, Vacatur No Comments »

neutral neutrality evident partialitySection 10(a)(2) of the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”) authorizes courts to vacate awards “where there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators, or either of them. . . .” 9 U.S.C. 10(a)(2). The next few instalments will focus on arbitrator neutrality and evident partiality, a later one on corruption. 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 hereherehere, 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).

Evident partiality has been the subject of numerous judicial decisions setting forth various standards and applying them to a wide range of fact patterns.  The decisions are not easy to reconcile (some may be irreconcilable) and the standards are often of limited utility. Matters are complicated by judicially created rules concerning disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and the consequences that may or may not flow from those rules.

But “evident partiality” may be easier to grasp if we focus not on abstract standards or ethical constructs, but on the parties’ reasonable expectations of neutrality. Surprisingly, many courts address the subject of “evident partiality” without expressly discussing this important consideration, even when it appears to have been a significant but unstated part of the decision-making calculus. Others have expressly used the parties’ agreement and attendant expectations of neutrality as a guidepost.

Understanding the parties’ reasonable expectations of partiality is only half the battle. One must also understand how those expectations are enforced through judicially created rules governing disclosure and waiver of conflicts of interest, and the relevance of those rules to a motion to vacate an award under FAA Act Section 10(a)(2).

In this instalment of the FAQ Guide our focus is on the parties’ reasonable expectations of arbitrator neutrality; evident partiality standards and how they are supposed to enforce reasonable expectations of neutrality without undermining arbitral finality; differences between evident partiality standards and judicial impartiality standards; and the differing expectations of arbitral neutrality that may attend tripartite arbitration. One or more subsequent instalments will discuss arbitrator disclosure procedures and requirements, which are designed to implement and enforce evident partiality standards; examples of what does and does not constitute evident partiality; and procedural issues pertinent to evident partiality challenges. Continue Reading »

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 Comments Off on The Repeat Player, Arbitration Providers, Evident Partiality, and the Ninth Circuit
Evident Partiality | Disclosure | 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 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.

Continue Reading »

SCOTUS Denies Americo and Jupiter Medical Cert. Petitions: All Eyes now on DIRECTV. . . .

May 19th, 2015 American Arbitration Association, Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Arbitrator Selection and Qualification Provisions, Awards, Choice-of-Law Provisions, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Confirmation of Awards, Consent to Class Arbitration, Contract Interpretation, FAA Preemption of State Law, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, State Courts, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on SCOTUS Denies Americo and Jupiter Medical Cert. Petitions: All Eyes now on DIRECTV. . . .

yay-34842-digital

On March 28, 2015 we reported (here) that the U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) had asked for a response to the petition for certiorari in Americo Life, Inc. v. Myer, 440 S.W.3d 18 (Tex. 2014). In Americo the Texas Supreme Court held that an arbitration award had to be vacated because it was made by a panel not constituted according to the parties’ agreement. The parties’ agreement, among other things, incorporated the American Arbitration Association (the “AAA”)’s rules, which at the time the parties entered into the contract followed the traditional, industry arbitration rule that party-appointed arbitrators may be partial, under the control of the appointing party or both. But by the time the dispute arose the AAA Rules had been amended to provide that the parties are presumed to intend to require parties to appoint only neutral arbitrators—that is, arbitrators that are both impartial and independent.

Five Justices of the nine-member Texas Court determined that the parties had agreed that party-appointed arbitrators need not be impartial, only independent. Because the AAA had, contrary to the parties’ agreement, disqualified the challenging party’s first-choice arbitrator on partiality grounds, the panel that rendered the award was not properly constituted and thus exceeded its powers. See 440 S.W.3d at 25. (Copies of our Americo posts are here and here.)

yay-12776482As reported here and here, the losing party requested Supreme  Court review to determine whether the Texas Supreme Court should have deferred to the AAA’s decision on disqualification rather than independently determining whether the parties intended to require party-appointed arbitrators to be neutral. The petition argues that there is a split in the circuits on the issue.

On Monday, May 18, 2015, SCOTUS denied the petition for certiorari.  (You can access the Court’s May 18, 2015 Order List here.)

On Monday May 4, 2015, SCOTUS also denied the petition for certiorari in another Federal Arbitration Act case, Jupiter Medical Center, Inc. v. Visiting Nurse Assoc., No. 14-944, which was decided by the Florida Supreme Court. (You can access the Court’s May 4, 2015 Order List here.) Jupiter Medical Center, like Americo, concerned a post-award challenge under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, and also like Americo, was decided by a state supreme court. In Jupiter Medical, however, the Florida Supreme Court rejected the post-award challenge.

yay-5257980-digitalSupreme Court watchers interested in arbitration cases will have to get their fix next term from DIRECTV v. Imburgia, which we discussed here. Will SCOTUS hold that the California intermediate Court did not give effect to the presumption of arbitrability? Will SCOTUS go even further and explain that, just as a statute cannot be interpreted “‘to destroy itself,'” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1748 (2011) (quoting  American Telephone & Telegraph Co. v. Central Office Telephone, Inc., 524 U.S. 214, 227-228 (1998) (quotation omitted)), so too cannot state law contract interpretation rules be applied in a way that would destroy an arbitration agreement to which the Federal Arbitration Act applies? Cf. Volt Info. Sciences, Inc. v. Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior Univ., 489 U.S. 468,  (1989) (“The question remains whether, assuming the choice-of-law clause meant what the Court of Appeal found it to mean, application of Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1281.2(c) is nonetheless pre-empted by the FAA to the extent it is used to stay arbitration under this contract involving interstate commerce.  .  .  . [because] “it would undermine the goals and policies of the FAA.”)

Stay tuned for DIRECTV.  .  .  .

 

Photo Acknowledgements:

All photos used in the text portion of this post are licensed from Yay Images and are subject to copyright protection under applicable law. Text has been added to image 2 (counting from top to bottom). Hover your mouse pointer over any image to view the Yay Images abbreviation of the photographer’s name.

All Eyes on Americo. . . .SCOTUS Expected to Rule on Petition for Certiorari at Upcoming May 14, 2015 Conference

May 12th, 2015 American Arbitration Association, Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Arbitrator Selection and Qualification Provisions, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Contract Interpretation, Evident Partiality, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, State Courts Comments Off on All Eyes on Americo. . . .SCOTUS Expected to Rule on Petition for Certiorari at Upcoming May 14, 2015 Conference

yay-677327-digitalOn March 28, 2015 we reported (here) that the U.S. Supreme Court had asked for a response to the petition for certiorari in Americo Life, Inc. v. Myer, 440 S.W.3d 18 (Tex. 2014). In Americo the Texas Supreme Court held that an arbitration award had to be vacated because it was made by a panel not constituted according to the parties’ agreement. The parties’ agreement, among other things, incorporated the American Arbitration Association (the “AAA”)’s rules, which at the time the parties entered into the contract followed the traditional, industry arbitration principle that party-appointed arbitrators may be partial, under the control of the appointing party or both. But by the time the dispute arose the AAA Rules had been amended to provide that the parties are presumed to intend that appointed arbitrators must be neutral.

Five Justices of the nine-member Court determined that the parties had agreed that party-appointed arbitrators need not be impartial, only independent. Because the AAA had, contrary to the parties’ agreement, disqualified the challenging party’s first-choice arbitrator on partiality grounds, the panel that rendered the award was not properly constituted and thus exceeded its powers. See 440 S.W.3d at 25. (Copies of our Americo posts are here and here.)

yay-34842-e1424841353823The losing party is requesting Supreme  Court review to determine whether the Texas Supreme Court should have deferred to the AAA’s decision on disqualification rather than independently determining whether the parties intended to require party-appointed arbitrators to be neutral. The petition argues that there is a split in the circuits on the issue.

At this week’s May 14, 2015 conference, the Court will presumably decide whether or not to grant certiorari.

In our March 28, 2015 post (here) we argued  that Americo‘s unique facts make it poor candidate for certiorari. At the time the parties agreed to arbitrate, the AAA rules “provided that ‘[u]nless the parties agree otherwise, an arbitrator selected unilaterally by one party is a party-appointed arbitrator and not subject to disqualification pursuant to Section 19.'” 440 S.W.3d at 23 (quoting AAA Commercial Rule § 12 (1996)). Section 19 permitted the AAA to disqualify neutral arbitrators for partiality, but, under Section 12, absent an agreement to the contrary, party-appointed arbitrators were not subject to disqualification under Rule 19. When the AAA Rules were amended to reverse the traditional presumption about partiality of party-appointed arbitrators, the Rules were also amended to authorize the AAA to determine whether party-appointed arbitrators were neutral.

yay-8590418-digitalThis is one of those (relatively rare) cases where a question of arbitrability—that is, whether the parties agreed to delegate to the AAA the authority to make a final and binding determination on whether a party-appointed arbitrator may be disqualified—is intertwined so inextricably with the merits of the dispute alleged to be arbitrable that, for all intents and purposes, the arbitrability and merits questions are identical. In other words, the AAA’s authority to disqualify turns on whether the parties agreed to neutral or non-neutral party-appointed arbitrators–the precise issue the petition claims the AAA should itself decide. In situations like these, the court cannot abdicate its duty to determine arbitrability, even if that means deciding some or all of the disputes that are alleged to be arbitrable. See, generally, Litton Financial Printing Div. v. National Labor Relations Board, 501 U.S. 190, 208-09 (1991).

Of course, the Supreme Court may believe otherwise, or may have other reasons for wanting  to grant certiorari.  But in any event, we’ll probably know by Monday, May 18, 2015 whether the Court will take the case.

 

Photo Acknowledgements:

All photos used in the text portion of this post are licensed from Yay Images and are subject to copyright protection under applicable law. Text has been added to images 1 and 3 (counting from top to bottom). Hover your mouse pointer over any image to view the Yay Images abbreviation of the photographer’s name.

Americo Part II: Sometimes Hard Cases Make Good Law

September 3rd, 2014 American Arbitration Association, Appellate Practice, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Arbitrator Selection and Qualification Provisions, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, State Courts, Texas Supreme Court Comments Off on Americo Part II: Sometimes Hard Cases Make Good Law

 

Introduction

On August 5, 2014 we critiqued (here) the Texas Supreme Court’s June 20, 2014 decision in Americo Life, Inc. v. Myer, ___ S.W.3d __, No. 12-0739, slip op. (Tex. June 20, 2014), which held that an arbitration award had to be vacated because it was made by a panel not constituted according to the parties’ agreement. Five Justices of the nine-member Court determined that the parties had agreed that party-appointed arbitrators need not be impartial, only independent. Because the American Arbitration Association (the “AAA”) had, contrary to the parties’ agreement, disqualified the challenging party’s first-choice arbitrator on partiality grounds, the panel that rendered the award was not properly constituted and thus exceeded its powers. See slip op. at 10.   

The Americo award was not a legitimate by product of the parties’ arbitration agreement, and so, ruled the majority, it had to be vacated. The majority resisted a temptation that the four dissenting Justices apparently could not: “interpreting” the parties’ agreement in a hyper-technical fashion to justify confirming the award, even though that outcome, as desirable as it might otherwise seem, would have required the majority to reach a conclusion about party intent that was, at best, implausible.

Make no mistake about it, the Texas Supreme Court was faced with a tough case, and we think the majority made the right call.  Had a similar issue been presented in a garden-variety contract interpretation case, we doubt it would have been such a tough case and would not be particularly surprised if the outcome would have been unanimous, not split.

What made the case so tough was that this was not only an arbitration case, but one where the interpretive issue was justiciable only at the post-award stage. The law says that should make so difference and that, in any event, subject to a few special arbitration-law rules, the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”) requires courts to put arbitration agreements on the same footing as all other contracts. But in post-award practice there a number of objective and subjective considerations that not infrequently result in courts reaching decisions in favor of confirming awards based on very doubtful, and sometimes, as here, implausible, conclusions about party intent.

That did not happen in Americo, and strange as it may seem, the majority’s decision that the award had to be vacated was a very pro-arbitration decision. A majority of the Justices enforced the parties’ arbitration agreement, which is the whole point of the FAA. And by doing so, they made arbitration all the more an attractive alternative to litigation.

Today’s post examines in greater detail what transpired in Americo, including the reasoning the majority and dissent articulated in support of their conclusions, and concludes with a few parting observations.  Continue Reading »

Arbitration and Mediation FAQs: Can I Appeal an Arbitration Award in Court?

May 21st, 2014 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Awards, Drafting Arbitration Agreements, Grounds for Vacatur, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Practice and Procedure Comments Off on Arbitration and Mediation FAQs: Can I Appeal an Arbitration Award in Court?

Introduction

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).

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New York Law Journal Article: “Arbitrator Evident Partiality Standard Under Scrutiny in ‘Scandinavian Re'”

May 20th, 2011 Appellate Practice, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Ethics, Evident Partiality, Grounds for Vacatur, Practice and Procedure, Reinsurance Arbitration, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on New York Law Journal Article: “Arbitrator Evident Partiality Standard Under Scrutiny in ‘Scandinavian Re'”

On May 18, 2011 the New York Law Journal published in its Outside Counsel section an article I wrote, which argues that the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit should reverse the district court’s judgment in Scandinavian Reinsurance Co. v. Saint Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co.,  No. 09 Civ. 9531(SAS), 2010 WL 653481, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 23, 2010), appeal pending No. 10-910-cv (2d Cir.). 

The article is reprinted below with permission, and I would like to thank Elaine Song, a member of the New York Law Journal’s editorial staff, for her assistance and work in getting this published in New York’s leading legal trade publication.   Continue Reading »

The Seventh Circuit Issues a Landmark Reinsurance Arbitration Opinion in Trustmark Ins. Co. v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co. (U.S.A.): Part III.A

March 9th, 2011 Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Awards, Ethics, Evident Partiality, Practice and Procedure, Reinsurance Arbitration, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York Comments Off on The Seventh Circuit Issues a Landmark Reinsurance Arbitration Opinion in Trustmark Ins. Co. v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co. (U.S.A.): Part III.A

Should the Second Circuit Reverse the District Court’s Judgment in Scandinavian Reinsurance Co. v. Saint Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co.?

I.       Introduction

Parts I and II of this three-part post discussed Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook’s decision in Trustmark Ins. Co. v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co. (U.S.A.), No. 09-3682, 2011 WL 285156 (7th Cir. Jan. 31, 2011), and said that Trustmark, in conjunction with  Sphere Drake Ins. Co. v. All American Life Ins. Co., 307 F.3d 617, 622 (7th Cir. 2002) (Easterbrook, J.),  demonstrates that the district court should not have vacated on evident partiality grounds the arbitration award in Scandinavian Reinsurance Co. v. Saint Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co, No. 09 Civ. 9531(SAS), 2010 WL 653481 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 23, 2010).     This Part III.A explains some of the reasons why that is so.  Continue Reading »

Arbitration Nuts & Bolts: Vacating Arbitration Awards – Part III.B: Evident Partiality (Enforcing the Parties’ Expectations of Neutrality)

January 12th, 2010 Awards, Evident Partiality, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Practice and Procedure 3 Comments »

Introduction

Part III.A of the evident partiality segment of this series discussed the parties’ reasonable expectations of neutrality.  Today we consider how those expectations are enforced. 

“Evident partiality” challenges typically arise out of one of two scenarios.  First, there are “presumed bias” cases in which the arbitrator’s relationship to the parties or the controversy would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the arbitrator was biased, even though the challenger cannot prove actual bias.    Second, there are evident partiality challenges based on allegations of actual bias.  For example, suppose a neutral said on the record during the proceedings prior to deliberations:  “Party A, frankly I have distrusted your company’s business motives for many years, but hearing your witnesses’ testimony has simply confirmed what I’ve suspected all along.”  While the chances of an arbitrator making such a statement (let alone on the record) are exceedingly slim to non-existent, it would provide the basis for an evident partiality challenge (which would probably succeed) based on proof of actual bias. 

The difference between “presumed” and “actual” bias is simply one of proof.  One is based on circumstantial evidence and the other on direct evidence.  Our focus will be on “presumed bias” cases, because they arise with greater frequency.  Actual bias is very difficult to prove, and if it or something approaching it can be established, then that proof would in any (or most any) event meet the standards necessary to establish evident partiality.    Continue Reading »