Like other states, Massachusetts has enacted an arbitration statute that provides a streamlined procedure for compelling a party to arbitrate. Section 1 of the Massachusetts Uniform Arbitration Act, G.L. c. 251, recognizes two types of arbitration agreements: (i) those requiring parties to a contract to submit any dispute arising between them to arbitration, and (ii) those requiring parties to submit an existing dispute to arbitration. If a party reneges on either type of agreement, the aggrieved party can file an application in the Massachusetts Superior Courts to compel arbitration. Such applications are heard as motions and typically must be served on the non-arbitrating party in the manner required for original writs of summons, though the parties can agree, and often do agree, on another procedure for service.
The initial application to compel arbitration should be filed in the county where the arbitration is to take place. If no arbitration site was agreed, then the application may be initiated in the non-arbitrating party’s county of residence or business. If the non-arbitrating party does not work or live in Massachusetts, then application may be made in any county. An exception to the foregoing venue requirements is triggered when an allegedly arbitrable claim is involved in an action pending in Superior Court. In that case, the application to compel arbitration of that claim should be made in the court where the action is pending.
Practitioners should note that, according to Section 17 of the Uniform Arbitration Act, once an application to compel arbitration has been filed in a specific Superior Court, all other applications made under the Uniform Arbitration Act – including, for instance, an application to confirm or vacate the eventual arbitration award – must be made in the same court unless the court orders otherwise.
Once a dispute concerning the existence or scope of an arbitration agreement has been teed up in an application to compel arbitration, then Section 2 of the Uniform Arbitration Act requires the court to “proceed summarily to the determination of the issue.” The court plays the role of arbitration gate-keeper, and Section 2 of the Uniform Arbitration Act specifically forbids courts from passing on the merits of an arbitrable dispute during proceedings to determine arbitrability: “An order for arbitration shall not be refused on the ground that the claim in issue lacks merit or bona fides or because any fault or grounds for the claim sought to be arbitrated have not been shown.”
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