United States: Don't Let Your Arbitration Agreement Bite You

Last Updated: March 16 2016
Article by Eric S. Solotoff

You hear people talk all the time these days that mediation and arbitration, or quite frankly, any alternate dispute resolution (ADR) methods are the best things since sliced bread.  They may very well be in the right case – which these days may be most of them given judicial backlogs, and other factors making presenting cases to a court undesirable.  They may not be the panacea that people think they are, especially when you don't frame what you want the arbitrator to do or how you want them to do it, correctly.  In fact, I have previously blogged that the right to appeal is not automatic unless you contract for it.

The issue of a less than ideal arbitration agreement coming back to bite a litigant in the behind was exemplified again yesterday in the unreported (non-precedential) Appellate Division case of Little v. Little.  In that case, the parties agreed to arbitrate a Tevis claim seeking damages for alleged spousal abuse and battered woman's syndrome before a retired judge. Rather than a full blown arbitration agreement, spelling out all of the desired standards, a right of appeal, etc., the agreement to arbitration was only memorialized in an order, which stated in total:

ORDERED, that the matter is hereby dismissed as the parties have agreed to submit to binding arbitration with a retired judge agreed on between the parties, which arbitration shall take place on or before February 15, 2013, the costs of which will be shared equally by the parties.

After the arbitration took place, the arbitrator issued a two-page written arbitration decision that awarded plaintiff $125,000 "for the physical and mental injuries sustained by her during her marriage..." The award did not set forth any findings of fact or conclusions of law.  Thereafter, the plaintiff moved to confirm the award and the defendant moved to vacate the award, both because of the lack of findings of fact and the reliance on a letter produced after the close of discovery.  The cross motion was denied and the arbitration award confirmed, leading to an appeal.

Defendant appealed claiming that  (1) the arbitration award was against public policy and should be vacated because without findings of fact and conclusions of law it cannot be determined if the award was procured by corruption, fraud or other undue means; and (2) the arbitrator's reliance on the letterproduced after the close of discovery in constituted undue means.  The Appellate Division rejected both of those arguments.

As to the lack of fact finding, the Court specifically noted:

The scope of arbitration and the requirements of an arbitrator are controlled by contract. Minkowitz v. Israeli, 433 N.J. Super. 111, 132-33 (App. Div. 2013). If the arbitration agreement does not require the arbitrator to make specific factual findings or follow particular procedures, the arbitrator is free to make an award in a manner consistent with the Arbitration Act. N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-4. The Arbitration Act only requires the arbitrator to "make a record of an award." N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-19(a). Moreover, the arbitration award provides that an arbitrator may conduct an arbitration in any manner that the arbitrator considers appropriate, with the goal of disposing of the matter fairly and expeditiously. N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-15(a). Accordingly, we have previously explained:

[W]ithout an agreement to the contrary, the power of the arbitrator is simply to issue an award that resolves a dispute. If they have not agreed in advance, the parties cannot, for example, force an arbitrator to give reasons for an award or to write a decision explaining his or her view of the facts. Neither can they appeal from the award as they could if they had proceeded to litigate their matter in court. Rather, the rights of the parties following issuance of an award, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, are entirely governed by statute. (internal citation omitted).

As to the reliance on the letter produced after the close of discovery:

Arbitrators are not bound by the rules of evidence, and instead may determine the admissibility, relevance, materiality and weight of any evidence. N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-15(a). Additionally, an arbitrator may permit any discovery that he or she determines to be appropriate, taking into account the goal of making the proceeding fair, expeditious, and cost-effective. N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-17(c).

What is the takeaway here?  If you want the rules of evidence to apply, put that in your arbitration agreement.  If you want findings of fact and conclusions of law, put that in your arbitration agreement.  If you want a right of review greater than the very limited right of review contained in the arbitration statute, put it in your arbitration agreement.  Otherwise, you can be left with very little remedies if you disagree with a decision, and like the litigant in this case, very little ability to determine what the decision was actually based upon.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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