As this blog has chronicled in the past, it is extremely difficult for an arbitral award to be vacated. The Federal Arbitration Act and many state arbitral acts provide very limited grounds for vacatur, as courts are reluctant to second-guess an arbitrator's decision. Indeed, courts have even refused to vacate awards when the arbitrator erred in his application of the law. Even a "grave error" made by the arbitrator is insufficient to vacate an award, as it is not amongst the grounds for vacating a decision.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that an arbitrator exceeds her authority only when "she awards relief beyond the scope of the arbitration agreement, beyond that to which the parties bound themselves, or enters an award prohibited by law." Conway v. CLC Bio, LLC, 2015 WL 9883907, Mass. App. Ct. No. 14-P-350 (June 12, 2015), at 5-6. The Court also reiterated that the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA") requires enforcement of an agreement to arbitrate statutory claims "absent a question of arbitrability, countervailing Congressional command, or cognizable challenge to the validity of the agreement to arbitrate." Id., at 10.
The American Arbitration Association recently released Optional Appellate Arbitration Rules, which aim to provide parties with an opportunity to have appeals of an arbitral award heard within the arbitration process itself. Typically, applications to vacate arbitral awards are heard in courts, and the grounds for vacatur are quite limited pursuant to federal and state arbitration statutes.
In yet another example of the great deference accorded to arbitral decisions by U.S. Federal Courts, the Fifth Circuit recently declined to vacate or modify an award based on allegations of arbitrator misconduct. Despite intimations that the conduct of the opposing party and the arbitrator may have led to a reversal had it occurred in the district court, the Fifth Circuit cited the bedrock principle that, due to a "strong federal policy favoring arbitration," judicial review of arbitration awards is "extremely narrow," and refused to vacate the award.
In the recent decision of Oxford Health Plans v. Sutter, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that even a "grave error" of an arbitrator is not enough to vacate an award in most cases. Oxford Health Plans had gone to federal court seeking to vacate an arbitrator's decision that John Sutter, MD, could bring a class action on behalf of himself and other New Jersey physicians alleging that Oxford failed to make full and prompt payment for services provided to members of Oxford's network.
Alternative dispute resolution is rightly gaining steam as an efficient, fair mechanism for the resolution of complex business disputes. Many companies are redrafting their standard-form contracts to include mandatory arbitration clauses. This is particularly true for companies doing business across state or national borders, so that they might avoid being hauled into court in a foreign jurisdiction. But what if you agree to arbitrate a dispute and end up losing? Do you have any recourse?