Getting To Arbitration

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Massachusetts law recognizes arbitration as "a remedy created by statute which limits its availability to the parties to an arbitration agreement." Rae F. Gill, P.C. v. DiGiovanni, 34 Mass.App.Ct. 498, 503 (1993). In other words, a statute - the Massachusetts Arbitration Act (G.L. c. 251) ("MAA") - creates the ability for parties to settle their legal disputes through arbitration, but those parties also must have a prior agreement to do so. But what happens when one party refuses to arbitrate?

"Where a party denies the existence of a valid agreement to arbitrate, either because the party denies that it entered into an agreement or because it challenges the validity of such agreement, the MAA's procedures set forth in G.L. c. 251, § 2, govern the adjudication of a motion to compel arbitration." McInnes v. LPL Fin., LLC, 466 Mass. 256, 261 (2013) (citing Warfield v. Beth Israel Deaconess Med. Ctr., Inc., 454 Mass. 390, 395 (2009) and St. Fleur v. WPI Cable Sys./Mutron, 450 Mass. 345, 352 (2008)). Those procedures begin with filing an application with the Superior Court for an order compelling arbitration - essentially a complaint for specific performance of the arbitration agreement - setting forth the relevant agreement to arbitrate, which often takes the form of certain dispute resolution provisions in a larger contract between the parties. If the resisting party denies the existence or validity of the agreement to arbitrate, the Court will "proceed summarily to the determination of the issue so raised and shall, if it finds for the applicant, order arbitration; otherwise, the application shall be denied." See G.L. c. 251, § 2(a).

Under the MAA, "[t]o 'proceed summarily' means 'that a judge determines whether there is a dispute as to a material fact [concerning the existence or validity of the agreement to arbitrate]; and, if there is not such a dispute, the judge resolves the issue as a matter of law; but if there is such a dispute, the judge conducts an expedited evidentiary hearing on the matter and then decides the issue.'" McInnes, 466 Mass. at 261 (quoting St. Fleur, 450 Mass. at 353). The Court's summary analysis functions not unlike that related to motions for summary judgment, so it's important for the moving party to lay out all the material facts concerning the existence and validity of an arbitration agreement in the initial application for an order compelling arbitration, supported by affidavit where necessary. See Miller v. Cotter, 448 Mass. 671, 676 (2007). That said, the Court's sole consideration is the arbitrability of the dispute - and not the merits of the case. If the moving party convinces the Court that a valid arbitration agreement exists between the parties, the Court will then issue an order compelling the resisting party to arbitrate the merits.

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