Archive for March, 2014

What Makes An Award An Award?: Thoughts About Enforcement of the Decisions of Experts and Appraisers

Monday, March 31st, 2014

A new decision from the US District Court in New York revisits a question that crops up sporadically: Is an agreement for binding expert determination of a discrete non-legal issue an agreement to arbitrate, such that the expert’s determination may be treated as an award? Answering yes, the Court in Seed Holdings Inc. v. Jiffy Intern. AS, 2014 WL 1141717 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 21, 2014), held that the expert’s decision pursuant to an agreement for binding resolution of a post-closing price adjustment by an independent accountant in a cross-border sale of assets agreement (Canada-US) fell under the New York Convention, with two consequences: (1) the seller’s New York State Court action to vacate the award under the New York Civil Practice Law section on expert determinations (Article 76, as opposed to arbitration which is covered in Article 75) was properly removed to federal court under the removal provision for Convention cases, 9 U.S.C. §205, and (ii) the accountant’s decision was an award confirmable under the Convention and FAA Chapter Two.
In the opinion of this District Court Judge, this outcome was required by decisions of the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals that have treated as a valid agreement to arbitrate any agreement for final and binding resolution of a dispute by a third party, regardless of whether the term arbitration is used, and regardless of whether the agreement requires the third party to apply any particular law or follow any particular rules of procedure. The Court acknowledged a contrary view, referencing the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, under whose cases the agreement must include some of the attributes of “classic arbitration” in order for the ensuing procedure to be regarded as an arbitration. The District Court in Seed Holdings noted that the “classic arbitration” test readily could have been met in this case, based on the procedures detailed in the parties’ engagement letter with the accountant and the actual procedure that the accountant followed. But the Court was clear in saying it was following the more liberal Second Circuit test: to decide whether there was an “arbitration” agreed upon, the Court looks only to see if the parties provided for binding resolution by a third party.
One might wonder if this was the best solution. The question before the Court was not whether there was subject matter jurisdiction under the Convention to enforce an alleged arbitration agreement. The question was whether there was subject matter jurisdiction to hear and decide (I) the set aside action originated in State court, and (ii) the recognition action originated in the federal court. So one may wonder whether it was appropriate for the Court to make the issue of jurisdiction to confirm or vacate the award turn entirely on whether the arbitration agreement, as opposed to the award, fell under the Convention. In this expert determination context, it seems possible that the agreement could fall under the Convention but the award might not. In this regard, the Second Circuit case most centrally cited in Seed Holdings as the controlling law McDonnell Douglas Fin. Corp. v. Pa. Power & Light Co., 858 F.2d 825, 830 (2d Cir. 1988)) dealt only with the existence of an arbitration agreement not an award. In the McDonnell Douglascase, the Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of a motion to compel arbitration, and held that the agreement of the parties for a tax dispute to be resolved by a mutually agreed independent tax counsel was an enforceable agreement to arbitrate. But no arbitration had yet taken place, and so the Second Circuit in that case did not have to answer the question that seems so central to theSeed Holdingscase: whether the ensuing binding decision is an arbitral award under the FAA.
So one may ask whether there is an unaddressed question here: whether an “arbitral award” under the Convention and FAA Chapter 2 may be any decision resolving the dispute made by the decision-maker designated in a valid arbitration agreement, or whether the term “arbitral award” implies the product of a proceeding that includes some procedural features. Looking only at the text of the New York Convention, there is reason to wonder whether it is sufficient, to constitute an award, that the decision emanates from an authority mutually-designated by the parties in an arbitration agreement to make a binding decision. Article II of the Convention requires the filing with the Court in which recognition is sought of an original or a duly-certified copy of the award. Thus the minimum attribute of an award under the Convention appears to be a written record of the decision.
Further, Article V (1) (b) of the Convention states as one of the permitted grounds for refusal of recognition of an award that the objecting party was not given “notice … of the arbitration proceedings or was otherwise unable to present his case.” Does this not suggest that an award under the Convention, to be considered as such, must be the product of some sort of proceedings in which each of the parties has an opportunity to state sufficiently the basis of its position? And does this not imply that agreement for binding resolution by a third party, but lacking any “proceedings” and lacking any presentations of positions by the parties, if followed to the letter, would produce a decision that might be “arbitral” in the sense that it is derivative of the arbitration agreement, but might not be an “arbitral award” because the term “arbitral” when used as an adjective in the Convention to modify “award” has a different and more procedurally-specific meaning?
The concern here is that the Second Circuit’s test as interpreted by the District Court in Seed Holdingswould potentially mean that the parties’ agreement for final and binding decision by a Tarot-card reader, without any proceedings or submissions of the parties, so long as the decision is committed to writing, is an enforceable arbitral award under the Convention if the other requirements (non-domestic commercial relationship, award made in Territory of a Convention State) are met. This cannot be what our courts intend, and we should not have to await the absurd case to bring out what is truly intended. Some version of the Eleventh Circuit’s “attributes of classic arbitration” formula is probably well-suited to the issue at hand.