agreement to arbitrate

A Party may Not Expand the Scope of Judicial Review of an Arbitration Clause

Posted by David Adelstein on October 14, 2018
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on A Party may Not Expand the Scope of Judicial Review of an Arbitration Clause

Arbitration is a creature of contract.  This means if you are going to arbitrate a dispute, as opposed to litigating a dispute, there must be an agreement to arbitrate.  However, whether a dispute should be arbitrated pursuant to the terms of the contract is an area that has been heavily litigated for a couple of reasons: 1) a party does not want to arbitrate the dispute and, therefore, files a lawsuit versus a demand for arbitration and 2) an opposing party that has been sued wants to enforce an arbitration provision in a contract.  As a result, an order granting or denying arbitration is an appealable non-final order

In a recent construction dispute between a general contractor and its millwork subcontractor, National Millwork, Inc. v. ANF Group, Inc., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D2207a (Fla. 4th DCA 2018), the subcontractor filed a lawsuit against the general contractor and the general contractor’s payment bond.  The general contractor moved to stay the litigation and compel arbitration pursuant to the arbitration provision in the subcontract.  The subcontractor argued that the arbitration provision was unenforceable, and, therefore, void, because it expanded the scope of judicial review after an arbitrator renders an arbitration award contrary to the Revised Florida Arbitration Code in Florida Statutes Chapter 682 (and, specifically, Florida Statute s. 682.014). 

The arbitration clause in the subcontract empowered the court to address on judicial review any failure by the arbitrator to properly apply the law and if the court or arbitrator failed to properly apply the law then this was subject to appellate review. 

This clause was creating an appellate basis to challenge an arbitration award based on a party’s position that the arbitrator did not correctly apply the law.  However, challenging an arbitrator’s award is very limited to discrete statutory circumstances and a party’s position that the arbitrator did not correctly apply the law is not one of them.   For this reason, the millwork subcontractor claimed the arbitration provision is void against public policy because it expanded the statutory circumstances to challenge an arbitration award set forth in the Revised Florida Arbitration Code.  The appellate court agreed: “A party may not expand the scope of judicial review of an arbitration agreement.”  National Millwork Inc., supra

The contract had a severability clause, an important clause in contracts.  Based on the severability clause, the appellate court remanded the issue back to the trial court to determine whether the unenforceable language in the arbitration clause that expanded judicial review of an arbitrator’s award could be severed from the clause such that the parties are still required to arbitrate without the expanded judicial review.   In other words, the appellate court wanted the trial court to determine whether severing the unenforceable language would still retain the essence of the arbitration clause or whether the entire clause was unenforceable because the offending language was integral to the agreement to arbitrate.  See National Millwork, Inc. supra, citing Obolensky v. Chatsworth at Wellington Green, LLC, 240 So.3d 6 (Fla. 4th DCA 2018).

It would seem that the offending language expanding the scope of judicial review of an arbitration award could be, and should be, severed.  This is the value and point of a severability clause in a contract.  It is uncertain why the appellate court did not make this ruling instead of remanding the matter back to the trial court which could lead to a further appeal.  Severing the offensive language still requires the parties to arbitrate, which is the basis of the arbitration clause, but without the appellate recourse / judicial review of a party challenging the arbitrator’s award based on an incorrect application of law. 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Significant Relationship between Claim and Agreement to Arbitrate

Posted by David Adelstein on March 25, 2017
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Significant Relationship between Claim and Agreement to Arbitrate

Just because you have an agreement to arbitrate does not necessarily mean that every conceivable claim, including those unrelated to the agreement, are subject to arbitration.   For instance, if there are separate agreements—one with an arbitration clause and another without—does not mean that a claim related to the agreement without an arbitration clause will be subject to arbitration per the separate agreement.   There needs to be a “significant relationship” between the agreement containing the arbitration provision and the claim, as best explained as follows:

[T]he mere coincidence that the parties in dispute have a contractual relationship will ordinarily not be enough to mandate arbitration of the dispute.” Rather, “there must exist a significant relationship between the claim and the agreement containing the arbitration clause.” The Florida Supreme Court has expanded upon the definition of “significant relationship” as follows:

A “significant relationship” between a claim and an arbitration provision does not necessarily exist merely because the parties in the dispute have a contractual relationship. Rather, a significant relationship is described to exist between an arbitration provision and a claim if there is a “contractual nexus” between the claim and the contract. A contractual nexus exists between a claim and a contract if the claim presents circumstances in which the resolution of the disputed issue requires either reference to, or construction of, a portion of the contract. More specifically, a claim has a nexus to a contract and arises from the terms of the contract if it emanates from an inimitable duty created by the parties’ unique contractual relationship. In contrast, a claim does not have a nexus to a contract if it pertains to the breach of a duty otherwise imposed by law or in recognition of public policy, such as a duty under the general common law owed not only to the contracting parties but also to third parties and the public.

Timber Pines Plaza, LLC v. Zabrzyski, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D587a (Fla. 5th DCA 2017 (internal citations omitted).

An example of this can be found in the Time Pines Plaza case.   Here, an owner of a shopping outlet mall contracted to sell outparcels of land to a buyer.  The contract for sale contained an arbitration provision.   Thereafter, and prior to closing, the owner issued amended deed restrictions on one of the outparcels that required plans for future construction to be submitted to the owner for pre-approval. The buyer signed an acknowledgment of its receipt of the amended deed restrictions. (There was no arbitration clause in this deed restrictions.)

After closing, the owner sued the buyer arguing that the buyer commenced construction without obtaining plan approval as required by the amended deed restrictions.   The buyer counter-sued with a claim asserting that owner breached the contract for sale.   The owner moved to compel this counterclaim to arbitration based on the arbitration provision in that contract.

The issue was whether the owner’s original claim relating to a breach of the amended deed restrictions had a significant relationship to the contract for sale such that it should have been subject to arbitration. If it should have been, there was an argument that the owner waived the right to arbitrate by initiating the lawsuit.

The court found that no significant relationship existed between the contract for sale and the amended deed restrictions. There was no contractual nexus with the argument that the buyer commenced construction without seeking approval and the contract for sale. The contract for sale contained no obligation regarding commencing construction before obtaining prior approval; this issue was only contained in the amended deed restrictions. “Of course, the instant dispute would not exist had the parties not contracted for the purchase and sale of the North Outparcel, but ‘the mere fact that the dispute would not have arisen but for the existence of the contract and consequent relationship between the parties is insufficient by itself to transform a dispute into one ‘arising out of or relating to’ the agreement.’” Timber Pines Plaza, supra (citation omitted).

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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