August 23, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court Lacked Jurisdiction to Confirm Arbitration Award Where Arbitrator Died

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Roth on Thursday, April 6, 2017.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction—Death of Arbitrator During Pendency of Arbitration.

The parties agreed to arbitrate the permanent orders issues in their dissolution of marriage. The agreement provided that the Colorado Uniform Arbitration Act (CUAA) governed the proceedings; the arbitrator would reserve jurisdiction for 20 days after issuing an award to allow the parties to seek clarification, correction, or modification of the award; and if jurisdiction was reserved on an issue, the arbitrator would hear it unless he was unavailable. The arbitrator issued an award, and both parties submitted timely requests for modification and clarification of the award. During the process of submitting these requests, the arbitrator died. Five days later, wife moved in district court to appoint a replacement arbitrator under C.R.S. § 13-22-215(5). A week later husband moved to confirm the arbitrator’s award under C.R.S. § 13-22-222. The trial court found that wife was essentially seeking to relitigate the permanent orders, and it denied her motion and granted husband’s motion to confirm the award and entered a dissolution decree incorporating the award.

On appeal, wife argued that under the CUAA, the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to confirm the arbitration award while the parties’ requests to modify or correct it were pending before the arbitrator. She contended that upon the death of the arbitrator, the court had subject matter jurisdiction only to appoint a replacement arbitrator. Under the CUAA, a valid and enforceable arbitration agreement divests the district court of jurisdiction on all matters submitted to arbitration pending the conclusion of the arbitration. Here, due to the timely requests for modification or correction of the award, the arbitration proceedings had not concluded at the death of the arbitrator and subject matter jurisdiction to confirm the award was not in the district court. Under the CUAA, the district court only had subject matter jurisdiction to appoint a replacement arbitrator to complete the proceedings.

Wife further contended that the district court erred by denying her motion to appoint a replacement arbitrator. Because it is undisputed that the parties’ chosen arbitrator could not act, the district court was required to appoint a replacement arbitrator.

The district court’s judgment confirming the arbitration award was vacated, its order denying wife’s motion to appoint a replacement arbitrator was reversed, and the case was remanded to appoint a replacement arbitrator to complete the arbitration proceedings.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Arbitration Agreement Requiring Parties to Pay Own Costs Prohibitive to Plaintiff

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Nesbitt v. FCNH, Inc. on Tuesday, January 5, 2016.

Rhonda Nesbitt was a student at the Denver School of Massage Therapy (DSMT), and as such was required to provide massage therapy services to the public without compensation. Nesbitt filed a class action against DSMT’s parent companies (defendants) in April 2014, alleging that the students were effectively acting as employees in providing services to the public and, as such, were entitled to compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act and wage and hour laws. Defendants moved the district court to stay the proceedings and compel arbitration pursuant to the arbitration agreement contained in plaintiffs’ student contract. The district court denied defendants’ motion, noting that although the agreement was not unconscionable, it effectively precluded Nesbitt from pursuing her claims because the cost of arbitration was prohibitive. The district court determined that because the arbitration agreement contained no savings clause, the entire agreement was unenforceable. Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Tenth Circuit first determined that the dispute was governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), and discussed the effective vindication exception, where plaintiffs are effectively prohibited from pursuing their claims because the prohibitive cost limits use of the arbitral forum. In this case, defendants argued that Nesbitt failed to carry her burden to show that arbitration would be prohibitively expensive. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. The Tenth Circuit found Nesbitt’s argument persuasive that the possibility of fee-shifting later in the arbitration is not the same as FLSA protection. The Tenth Circuit also rejected the defendants’ arguments that the arbitration agreement was silent as to fees and costs, noting it explicitly invoked the American Arbitration Association’s Commercial Rules, which address the allocation of fees and costs. The Tenth Circuit concluded that forcing an employee to pay for arbitration with the mere possibility of future reimbursement constituted prohibitive costs.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court.

Tenth Circuit: Federal Arbitration Act Requires Trial to Resolve Disputes Regarding Whether Arbitration Agreement Existed

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Howard v. Ferrellgas Partners, L.P. on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.

The dispute in this case was whether an agreement to arbitrate existed. It was not clear if the parties opted for or against arbitration, and the parties moved their dispute to district court, where extensive discovery and motions practice occurred. Almost a year and half after Ferrellgas filed its motion to compel arbitration, the court issued an order in which it found that material disputes of fact still prevented it from saying for certain whether or not the parties had agreed to arbitrate. But rather than proceeding to resolve the conflicting factual accounts through trial as the Federal Arbitration Act requires, the court erroneously entered an order denying arbitration outright.

The Tenth Circuit ruled that there were still disputed issues of material fact that had to be resolved in the trial court, and that the case should proceed summarily to trial. It was remanded for proceedings consistent with the opinion.