AAA Arbitrations Now Include an Appeal Process for Complex Commercial Disputes
Years of experience litigating in the federal courts on the one hand, and arbitrating before the AAA on the other, have left me skeptical of the idea that arbitration is somehow preferable to the courts for resolving complex business disputes. My own experience is that, for those types of cases, arbitration is often not less expensive, seldom faster, and less likely to result in an accurate result (if you define accurate as a result roughly within the bell curve of possible results that an objective observer might forecast for a case). I discussed these issues in detail here, here and here in the past.
One of the bigger concerns I have discussed in the past is the risk of parties just assuming that arbitration is a better forum for a complex business dispute, rather than carefully considering in advance whether or not it is the better forum for their particular dispute and, even more importantly, for the factual and legal arguments they intend to advance. One of the important points I have discussed in the past is that a company and its counsel should carefully consider whether the strength of their position lies in legal arguments or instead in factual ones before electing arbitration, because it is a mistake to forego appellate review when your best arguments are legal. Arbitration panels themselves too frequently get the law wrong or reach incorrect results in cases where a complex or novel legal issue is outcome determinative, for a number of reasons, including an inherent tendency (for a number of reasons) to be more fact driven in their decision making than law driven. As those of you who practice in this area already know, appellate review of arbitration rulings by the courts is extremely limited and unlikely to overturn an award based simply on a glaring error in legal analysis by the arbitration panel, even though that is exactly the type of situation in which an appeals court would freely overrule a trial judge.
Now, the AAA is offering an appellate stage for complex commercial arbitrations, which will go far, at least on paper, towards addressing this problem. While it may not be preferable to going to court and having full appellate review by a federal circuit bench or state supreme court, it will at least allow the parties the opportunity to brief, address and possibly remedy legal errors by an arbitration panel. The devil, of course, will be in the details, but this is a promising step towards making the promise of arbitration – faster and less expensive but accurate dispute resolution – align with the reality.
Empirical Proof of What I Always Thought (And Said): The Benefits of Litigation over Arbitration
This is great. I have lost count of how many times I have explained my view that arbitration is not, by definition, preferable to litigation for resolving disputes, and that instead, in each and every given case, a party should think carefully about which dispute resolution forum is preferable. I have written and spoken on the idea that, initially, company decision makers should put aside the assumption that arbitration will save money, because it generally does not. There are more controls on the litigation process than are built into the arbitration process and, as a result, if one side or another is interested in bogging down the process in excessive discovery, motion practice, or other efforts, they can more easily run up the costs in an arbitration than they can in litigation. Arbitration, as a result, is only less expensive if both parties set out in good faith to make it that way. If one party sees a tactical benefit in doing otherwise, though, the dynamics of arbitration make it far too easy to turn arbitration into an expensive, time consuming, seemingly never ending event. Judges, as a general rule, won’t allow this to the same extent in court.
Second, there are tactical considerations in deciding between arbitration and litigation, which have to do with the strength of a party’s case, and whether that strength is based on legal arguments or instead on facts. It is my view that a case based on legal theories is better prosecuted in court, for at least two reasons. First, motions to dismiss and summary judgment are effective avenues in that forum to have the court rule, relatively early on, as to the strength of those legal defenses. Arbitration panels are, for various reasons, more often inclined to hold all such issues over for the final hearing, eliminating the possibility of an early outcome without having to engage in a full evidentiary hearing on the evidence. In my experience, the only real consistent exception to this dynamic in arbitrations is when the arbitration panel is chaired by a well-regarded retired judge, who may be inclined to incorporate more of the courtroom structure into the arbitration process. Second, in a case built on legal theories, it is always better to have a second chance to press that theory if it is rejected the first time around, which litigation allows by means of appeal. Arbitration generally doesn’t allow that, as state arbitration acts and the Federal Arbitration Act generally impose very limited rights of appeal from arbitration rulings.
In this excellent article in Inside Counsel, authors Alan Dabdoub and Trey Cox provide empirical support for these views, which have, until now, been based simply on my own years of arbitrating and litigating cases, and of observing the difference between the two. The authors use a comparative study of 19 different cases, about half in arbitration and about half in litigation, to demonstrate that litigation, and not arbitration, can often be the faster and less expensive path for resolving disputes. It is well worth a read.
An Emerging Consensus on Arbitrating Complex Commercial Disputes?
Well, I have written extensively on my skepticism about commercial arbitration as a tool for solving commercial disputes, and my belief that the courtroom is a better forum for most complex cases. It would take a lot of links to cover my past discussion of the pros and cons of this type of dispute resolution, and my reasons for thinking it a far weaker forum for a dispute between corporate entities than the courthouse. If you click on the category “Arbitration of Coverage Disputes” or the category “Arbitration” over on the left side, however, you will quickly find my past discussions of this topic. If you don’t want to do that, however, you could read this article here, which nicely sums up the same calculus that underlies my earlier posts on the efficacy, and sometimes lack thereof, of commercial arbitration.
Legal Rights That Are Protected In Courts, May Well Be Lost In An Arbitration
Permalink | I haven’t commented in the past on this, because there was too much else going on directly on point with ERISA. However, as many of you may know, the Supreme Court issued an opinion a week or two back in essence concluding that parties may not contract between themselves to allow a court to review an arbitration award beyond the limited review provided for under the Federal Arbitration Act. As I have discussed on this blog more times than I care to remember, commercial arbitration suffers from a number of problems, and I have suggested in the past that commercial entities who want to arbitrate should take preemptive steps to solve those problems at the time they agree to arbitrate. Probably the biggest barrier to arbitration serving as a forum for complicated commercial disputes is that the Federal Arbitration Act effectively provides no substantive oversight of an arbitration ruling, making the arbitrator’s ruling the final decision, and only allows judicial review for the purpose of addressing any serious procedural errors during the course of an arbitration. Commercial entities have been well advised in the past to try to negotiate around this problem, to leave some type of judicial review in place that will provide oversight of an arbitration panel that is akin to what a federal appeals court provides to a trial court. The Supreme Court’s opinion effectively deprives parties who wish to arbitrate from agreeing to allow such a review by a federal court, making arbitration a forum that, quite simply, isn’t appropriate for a party that wants to maintain rights of appeal should the original decision maker - whether an arbitration panel, a trial judge or a jury - err significantly on either the particular law or the application of that law to the facts proven in the case.
Frankly, from a substantive real world approach, it’s the wrong decision. Arbitration can work for commercial entities, but not in a cookie cutter manner and only if they can negotiate around the problem of limited judicial review. The Supreme Court’s ruling precludes contractually remedying that problem. As a hypothetical question for a federal courts class, it might be the right answer; in the real world, it certainly isn’t. Indeed, I have commented in the past on empirical and anecdotal evidence that commercial entities are losing interest in resolving complicated business disputes by arbitration, and this ruling isn’t going to reverse, or even slow, that trend.
What’s the occasion for this soliloquy? This article right here, out of Texas Lawyer, which hits these notes right on the head (I like a good mixed metaphor on a Monday).
Let My People Go, or Something Like That: Granting Parties Greater Freedom to Construct an Arbitration Regime
Permalink | There was an interesting post yesterday on the Wall Street Journal Law Blog - which by its topics provides a nice little overview of the zeitgeist of the legal world at any given moment - on arbitration as an alternative to litigation. The post discusses a column from the Financial Times supporting the growth of arbitration in the face of consideration by the Supreme Court of a case concerning just how much freedom parties have in constructing the format of the arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act. The column itself is here. What’s interesting to me about all of this is that at the same time business media of this nature is singing the praises of arbitration, the lawyers for much of that business community don’t much like it as a tool for resolving complicated disputes, as I have discussed in a number of posts, including - most recently - here. Is there a disjunct over the question of the efficacy of arbitration between the business communities and their lawyers, including their in-house lawyers, who are tending not to favor arbitration for their own disputes? Or is there only a disjunct between the media who cover that issue and the business community and its lawyers?
Incidentally, the Supreme Court case involving arbitration concerns the extent to which the parties can structure their rights and remedies in that process in the face of the Federal Arbitration Act, including the extent to which they can appeal an arbitrator’s ruling in the court system. As a frequent commentator on arbitration and one who regularly represents parties in arbitration, I have no doubt that expanding the power of the parties in such a manner can only improve arbitration, at least of commercial cases involving parties of roughly equal bargaining power.
Electronic Discovery and the Calculus of Arbitration
Permalink | I have written before about electronic discovery and the amendments to the federal rules governing that discovery, and my theme has often been that the courts need to develop a jurisprudence concerning electronic discovery that carefully weighs the expense of the discovery versus the need for it before granting extensive (and expensive) electronic discovery. In this article here, DLA Piper partner Browning Marean points out that the expense of electronic discovery can often be so burdensome that it forces settlement without regard to the merits of a case; as he puts it in a very clever turn of phrase, “the possibility of extortion by discovery is too real a prospect.” I have said it before and I will say it again: we are at the opening phases of the development of the law of evidence and discovery in this area, and the courts need to establish a body of precedent governing this type of discovery that prevents electronic discovery from having this effect.
At the same time, I have discussed as well on this blog the consensus that arbitration is a poor forum for most complex cases and is often not an improvement - in terms of costs, efficiency or outcome - over litigation. The electronic discovery amendments to the federal rules may be in the process of changing that. Unburdened by the federal rules themselves or the developing case law concerning electronic discovery, an arbitration panel is free to fashion much narrower electronic discovery and to impose much stricter controls over it than courts are currently tending to impose,
all on the thesis that a large part of an arbitration panel’s job is to effectuate arbitration’s promise of cost effective dispute resolution. As a result, as electronic discovery costs go up in federal court, the comparative cost advantage of arbitration - which has been disappearing over the years - increases, possibly changing the calculus for litigants over whether or not to agree to arbitration.
More on the Question of When to Arbitrate and When to Instead Litigate
Permalink | Pretty much since I started writing this blog I have talked about how, in my experience, commercial arbitration is not a panacea and often is not a better forum than litigation for resolving disputes. My main point has always been that it depends on the particular dispute and on the details of a party’s position, including the strengths and weaknesses of that party’s case. Since beginning my run of comments on that theme, there has been no shortage of pieces in major media outlets basically saying the same thing, some of which I have linked to on occasion here on this blog.
I particularly like this latest one on the subject, however, by Jo Ann Shotwell Kaplan, the general counsel of the New England Legal Foundation, and thought I would pass it along. The article reports on a seminar the foundation hosted on the subject of commercial arbitration as a forum for deciding business disputes. One of the things that makes it worthwhile reading on a subject that has otherwise been well plowed elsewhere is the strength of the panel discussing the issue, and the article’s ability to capture some of the more subtle considerations in determining whether arbitration, or instead the courtroom, is the way to proceed. As an example, I particularly appreciated the point raised by one of the panelists, counsel to a major consumer products company, that arbitration is best used in the context of recurring disputes between the same players because in those instances the parties are motivated to make the best use of the system, but that arbitration is simply a failure when applied to one and done disputes that are subject to arbitration only because of a pre-dispute mandatory arbitration clause.
The second thing I liked about the article was a point it made which I simply have not seen made anywhere else, which in this world of media saturation is a rare occurrence. The article discusses the views of one arbitration expert that commercial arbitration, whatever its merits may be when resolving other types of disputes, is actually preferable to litigation with regard to international disputes, for two reasons. The first is that using arbitration puts the parties on the same playing field, removing from the equation the differences between the different legal systems applicable in the different countries where the businesses involved in the dispute are domiciled. The second, and almost stunning reason, is that commercial arbitration rulings out of this country are often more respected in other countries’ court systems than are court verdicts. The panelist, a Boston University Law School professor:
explained that a U.S. arbitration award has more international currency than a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Apparently other countries don’t think too much of our system of jury trials in civil cases and runaway punitive damage awards. They have agreed to enforce our arbitration awards, but not our court judgments.
ERISA and Same Sex Marriage
Here’s a great story out of Boston, by means of the Workplace Prof, that touches on several obsessions of this blog - ERISA, the federal arbitration act, and court review of arbitration awards. As the Prof explains in this post here, a federal judge for the District of Massachusetts is seeking amicus briefs related to whether or not the court should affirm or instead vacate an arbitrator’s finding that an employer could limit ERISA governed health insurance benefits provided to employees’ spouses only to spouses of the opposite sex. The arbitrator had determined that the benefits were collectively bargained for and that the limitation was appropriate under the collective bargaining agreement.
Now, presumably, the matter is before the District Court here on a motion by the losing party in the arbitration to vacate the award, given that the court is asking for amicus to address the question of whether the arbitration award and the employee benefit plan approved of by the arbitrator violate a clear Massachusetts public policy, given the state’s protection of same sex marriages. The court is inquiring as well into the question of whether that public policy, if it can trump the arbitrator’s award and thereby justify setting aside the arbitration award, is itself trumped by ERISA preemption, with the result, presumably, that the benefits offered by the employer have to be left as is.
There aren’t many states where this issue could really come into play, one would think, although I don’t know how many other states other than Massachusetts allow gay marriage, and thus can have employee spouses who are not of the same sex. Beyond that, the court’s response shows a serious involvement by the court in the question of whether an arbitration award was proper, which I have argued before in this blog is the appropriate approach of a court presented with a challenge to an arbitration award. While one might say the court is really reaching out quite far to address this issue, more than one would normally expect from a district court judge, I will take that any day over the situation I have noted in other posts on this blog, where judges sometimes seems to simply reflexively approve arbitration awards, or at least start with some sort of barely rebuttable presumption that the award should be upheld, both of which are approaches that I do not believe are justified under the Federal Arbitration Act. In addition, it is not particularly out of the norm in this particular federal district to reach out for help from the legal and business community in this way in this type of a case, as I can recall other judges in this district requesting amicus briefs on difficult questions involving the interplay of ERISA and federal or state anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, other judges, as discussed in this post of mine from a little while back, in this district are likewise continuing to struggle with the impact of ERISA on employers as they try to figure out how to structure their employee benefits when it comes to spouses, partners and other dependents, in this brave new world we live in here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Incidentally, the underlying arbitration award is one that I discussed here, in this post, some time ago, in case you want to know more about the underlying controversy.
Why You Should Hire a Lawyer With A Black Belt in Commercial Arbitration
Permalink | You know, the term martial arts is really just an umbrella for a whole range of more particular styles of physical combat, and the diversity is actually kind of fascinating. What does this have to do with anything? Well, I was reminded of this by this post from the Adjunct Law Prof on a ruling by the Virginia state supreme court concerning the grounds on which one can challenge an arbitration ruling when the arbitration is governed by the Virginia state arbitration act. Litigation is much like martial arts, in the sense that we subsume within that phrase a lot of areas that actually have their own specific quirks, and for which experience in one area may not necessarily transfer to success in another. Commercial arbitration, as the Adjunct Law Prof’s post reflects, is one such area. States have their own arbitration acts, unique to their states, and the federal system has its federal arbitration act, which is what most people talk of when discussing the law of arbitration. But the outcome of an arbitration can vary depending, as that post shows, on which particular arbitration act governs an arbitration. The Adjunct Law Prof’s post explains that the outcome in Virginia under that state’s arbitration act would be different under both New York law and in the federal system.
And thus among the black arts of arbitrating cases is knowing when, and how, to maneuver around various state arbitration acts and the federal arbitration act, and knowing how to get the best act for your case to be applicable. And subtleties like that are why it is important to hire a lawyer skilled and experienced with arbitration, rather than to just assume that litigation is litigation, and that a different set of skills is not necessary for the subset of litigation known as commercial arbitration.
Commercial Arbitration and the Federal Arbitration Act
Permalink | Very few things can still reduce me to an adolescent rumble of uttering very, very, very cool, and it is particularly remarkable when something in the practice of law has that effect. These three posts, from Workplace Prof, Adjunct Law Prof Blog, and SCOTUSBLOG had that effect on me when I came in to them on my desktop this morning. They all discuss the fact that the Supreme Court has accepted a case presenting the question of whether parties to arbitration agreements can contract around the Federal Arbitration Act and change the extent of judicial review of an arbitrator’s ruling. As I have discussed in a number of posts in the past, I am one of many people who have a healthy skepticism about commercial arbitration, and one of my many concerns with the format has to do with the extremely limited judicial review of arbitration decisions, even ones that are obviously and fundamentally flawed. I discussed this point in some detail here. For those clients who are interested in arbitrating, I often counsel close analysis of the pluses and minuses of doing so, and in particular I recommend attention to the arbitration agreement itself with the idea of adding into it particular protections or litigation tools that would otherwise be missing from the process. Now, it looks like the Supreme Court will be addressing the question of to what extent parties can actually do this. As I said, very, very cool, at least to those of us with a long standing interest in the pros and cons of arbitration, and how to improve it by private agreement.