April 29, 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.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Arbitration Agreement Must Strictly Comply with Statute

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Fischer v. Colorow Health Care, LLC on Thursday, September 8, 2016.

Arbitration Agreement—Motion to Compel—C.R.S. § 13-64-403—Strict Compliance.

Colorow Health Care, LLC, and its management company, QP Health Care Services, LLC, operate a long-term healthcare facility. When Fischer (the decedent) was admitted to the facility, her daughter, acting under a power of attorney, signed an arbitration agreement. The decedent passed away while a resident of the facility. Plaintiffs Amy and Roger Fischer pleaded tort claims arising from the decedent’s death. Defendants appealed the trial court’s order denying their motions to compel arbitration.

Defendants then filed this interlocutory appeal as of right under C.R.S. § 13-22-228(1)(a), contesting the trial court’s order denying their motions to compel arbitration. C.R.S. § 13-64-403 sets out specific language that an arbitration agreement must include to comply with the Health Care Availability Act. Defendants contended that the statute requires only substantial compliance with its provisions; plaintiffs argued that the arbitration agreement had to strictly comply, and because it admittedly did not, it was invalid. The court of appeals concluded that C.R.S. § 13-64-403 calls for strict compliance, and based on the complete lack of bold-faced type in the agreement, the court agreed that the agreement was invalid.  The court further concluded that this neither creates an absurd result nor violates Colorado’s public policy favoring arbitration.

The order was affirmed.

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.

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court Not Statutorily Required to Grant De Novo Review of Arbitrator’s Decision

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Vanderborgh on Thursday, March 25, 2016.

Parenting Time Dispute—Arbitration Agreement—De Novo Hearing—Constitutional Rights.

The parties submitted their post-dissolution parenting time disputes to an arbitrator pursuant to their agreement in their Parenting Plan. After the third decision by an arbitrator, father moved for a de novo hearing, under CRS § 14-10-128.5(2), on his motion to modify the parenting time schedule. The court denied father’s request for a de novo hearing and confirmed the arbitrator’s decision.

On appeal, father first contended that the district court erred by denying him a de novo hearing on his request for equal parenting time during the school year because CRS § 14-10-128.5(2) mandates such a hearing whenever a party requests one. The plain language of this statute, however, gives the court discretion to grant or deny a party’s motion for a de novo hearing, and the Court of Appeals concluded that the court did not abuse that discretion.

Father next argued that CRS § 14-10-128.5(2) is unconstitutional as the district court applied it because it “allows an arbitration decision on parenting time, a constitutionally protected interest, without procedural safeguards and only discretionary review.” Father agreed to arbitrate the issue of parenting time, and his right to challenge the arbitration award under the Colorado Uniform Arbitration Act and to request (but not necessarily receive) a de novo hearing under CRS § 14-10-128.5 sufficiently protect his rights to procedural due process.

Father also argued that the parties’ child was denied equal protection because he does not have the same rights as children whose parents do not choose arbitration for parenting time disputes. The Court determined that the child’s rights were adequately protected under the dissolution statutes.

The order was affirmed and the case was remanded to determine mother’s request for appellate attorney fees.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Concealment of Arbitration Agreements Until Late Stage of Litigation Constituted Waiver of Right to Arbitrate

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Cox Enterprises, Inc.: Healy v. Cox Communications, Inc. on Wednesday, June 24, 2015.

Cox is a cable provider involved in class-action litigation brought by subscribers to its cable service. In 2009, subscribers in several jurisdictions filed suits against Cox, alleging the company illegally tied provision of its cable service to rental of a set-top box. The actions were consolidated in a multi-district litigation and transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. Cox moved to dismiss, and during the pendency of its motion began inserting mandatory arbitration clauses into contracts with many of its customers, including class members. Cox does not appear to have notified the District Court about its insertion of the clauses. Plaintiffs’ efforts to certify a nationwide class failed, and instead they sought to certify several classes for geographic regions. These actions were again consolidated and transferred to the Western District of Oklahoma.

The instant case was originally brought in April 2012, and Cox unsuccessfully moved to dismiss in September 2012. The parties then engaged in substantial discovery, and named plaintiff Healy moved to certify a class in September 2013. Cox at no time mentioned the arbitration clauses. The court granted class certification in January 2014 as the parties continued to engage in discovery. Cox appealed to the Tenth Circuit in March 2014, again failing to mention the arbitration clauses, but its petition was denied. In April 2014, Cox moved for summary judgment, and that same day it moved to compel arbitration against both the absent class and named plaintiff Healy, citing the arbitration clauses for the first time. It later clarified that it was not compelling arbitration against Healy. The district court denied the motion to compel on the basis that Cox’s prior conduct in the litigation constituted waiver. Cox appealed.

The Tenth Circuit used its six-factor Peterson test to evaluate whether the right to arbitration had been waived. The six factors are (1) whether the party’s actions are inconsistent with the right to arbitrate, (2) whether the parties were well into the preparation of a lawsuit before a party notified the opposing party of an intent to arbitrate, (3) whether a party requested arbitration enforcement close to a trial date or delayed for a long period before seeking a stay, (4) whether a defendant seeking arbitration filed a counterclaim without requesting a stay, (5) whether important intervening steps like discovery had taken place, and (6) whether the delay affected, misled, or prejudiced the opposing party.

The district court determined Cox’s failure to inform it of the presence of arbitration agreements until after class certification was inconsistent with an intent to arbitrate and suggested an attempt to manipulate the process, as it would affect the numerosity of the class. The Tenth Circuit agreed, also finding that because Cox did not request for its motion for summary judgment to be stayed pending arbitration implied an attempt to “play heads I win, tails you lose” by manipulating the litigation machinery. The district court found, and the Tenth Circuit agreed, that the second, third, and fifth Peterson factors also cut strongly against Cox. Cox did not invoke the arbitration agreements until two years after the lawsuit was commenced, and substantial discovery had occurred before the invocation. Further, Cox failed to mention a factor that would have significantly affected the district court’s Rule 23 analysis, and Healy would be significantly prejudiced if arbitration were allowed. The Tenth Circuit opined that perhaps the greatest prejudice would be to the integrity of the judicial process, since both the district court and Tenth Circuit had invested significant time and energy in analyzing literally thousands of pages of documents.

Cox argued the Peterson factors were inapplicable because a party does not invariably waive its right to impose arbitration by filing its motion to compel after class certification. The district court rejected this argument as an improper attempt to artificially narrow the scope of the waiver, and the Tenth Circuit agreed. Cox could have asserted its right to arbitration at many earlier litigation stages but chose to conceal the arbitration provisions. Further, the district court’s denial of the motion to compel was based not on Cox’s failure to compel arbitration earlier but rather its specific conduct evincing an attempt to “take multiple bites of the apple.”

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court.

Tenth Circuit: Refusal to Pay Arbitration Fees Justified District Court’s Removal of Stay

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. v. Cahill on Tuesday, May 26, 2015.

Todd Cahill was a former sales associate for Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc., who agreed not to solicit or recruit other Pre-Paid sales associates during his employment or for two years after termination. Cahill left Pre-Paid to join another marketing company, and Pre-Paid contended he misused trade secret information and solicited other Pre-Paid employees for work at his new company. Pre-Paid brought suit in Oklahoma state court, and Cahill removed the action to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, claiming diversity jurisdiction. Cahill then moved to stay the proceedings pending arbitration, which motion was granted. Pre-Paid initiated arbitration proceedings before the American Arbitration Association (AAA). Pre-Paid paid its share of arbitration fees but Cahill did not. Cahill received repeated warnings from the Director of ADR Services at the AAA that arbitration would be suspended and terminated if he failed to pay, but neither paid his fees nor requested other relief. Eventually, the Director terminated arbitration. Pre-Paid petitioned the district court to remove the stay, and the district court granted the motion.

Cahill appealed the lifting of the stay, arguing the Tenth Circuit had jurisdiction under 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(1)(A). Pre-Paid moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, and, if the Tenth Circuit found it had jurisdiction, urged the court to affirm the lifting of the stay.

The Tenth Circuit first analyzed its jurisdiction. Although it generally does not have jurisdiction to review non-final orders, the Federal Arbitration Act provides an exception for orders that refuse to stay proceedings pending arbitration. The Circuit found that the order lifting the stay was essentially an order “refusing a stay,” since the district court declined to continue enforcing the stay after arbitration proceedings were terminated. The Tenth Circuit declined to draw a distinction between a district court refusing to apply a stay and a court refusing to continue a stay once arbitration failed. The Circuit likewise found that Cahill’s request to continue the stay was initiated under § 3 of the FAA.

Turning to the merits of the appeal, the Tenth Circuit found the district court properly lifted the stay. The Circuit found that arbitration had “been had in accordance with the terms of the agreement” because the arbitration clause in Cahill’s employment agreement required the parties to pay their share of fees in accordance with AAA rules. Since Cahill failed to pay his fees and the Director terminated the arbitration proceedings, the Tenth Circuit found arbitration had “been had” pursuant to § 3. Similarly, the Tenth Circuit found support for the district court’s actions under § 3’s language regarding default. There was no dispute regarding Cahill’s failure to pay the arbitration fees. Cahill never asserted an inability to pay, nor did he ask for a modified payment schedule or request for Pre-Paid to pay his arbitration fees. Instead, he allowed arbitration to terminate by refusing to pay the fees. The Tenth Circuit found this failure to pay constituted “default” under § 3. Cahill contended the arbitrators were the correct party to determine default, but the Circuit disagreed, finding the district court’s decision to remove the stay appropriate in light of Cahill’s refusal to pay fees. Even assuming the default decision was left to the arbitrators, the Tenth Circuit found that the arbitrators determined Cahill was in default by refusing to pay the fees.

The Tenth Circuit found it had jurisdiction to hear the appeal and affirmed the district court’s lifting of the stay.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Signatory to Arbitration Agreement May Not Equitably Avoid Arbitration After Acknowledging Agreement

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Meister v. Stout on Thursday, May 7, 2015.

First Impression—Compelling Arbitration on a Non-signatory—Appellate Attorney Fees—Confirmation of Arbitration Award.

DeLollis and Stout founded an information technology company, Venti Solutions, LLC. Meister invested in Venti and became a member of the company. The purchase agreement signed by Venti, Stout, DeLollis, and Meister granted Meister a 20% interest in Venti in exchange for a capital contribution of $500,000.

The agreement incorporated by reference the Venti operating agreement, which was executed by Stout and DeLollis. The operating agreement had a dispute resolution article providing that arbitration was the exclusive mechanism for resolving all disputes.

In 2012, Meister sued DeLollis, Stout, and Venti. DeLollis and Venti moved to compel arbitration, and the court so ordered. The arbitrator dismissed Meister’s claims with prejudice and awarded $375,738.70 against him on Venti’s breach of contract counterclaim. The district court confirmed the award.

Meister appealed on the ground that arbitration should not have been compulsory as to his claims against Venti, a non-signatory to the operating agreement. Under Colorado law, both signatory and non-signatory parties may be bound by an arbitration agreement if so dictated by ordinary principles of contract law. Equitable estoppel may also be used to bind parties to an arbitration agreement.

The Court of Appeals held that Meister’s claims against Venti were subject to arbitration under an estoppel theory. All of his claims referenced or presumed and relied on the existence of the operating agreement. He was therefore equitably estopped from avoiding arbitration of his claims against Venti. As additional support for this conclusion, the Court noted that Meister’s claims alleged interconnected and concerted misconduct among Venti, Stout, and DeLollis, and it was admitted that Stout and DeLollis were subject to the operating agreement and the arbitration provision.

Meister also challenged the district court’s confirmation of the arbitration award. The Venti operating agreement required arbitration to take place not more than sixty days after selection of an arbitrator. Originally scheduled for July 9 and 10, 2013, arbitration was postponed to September 3 and 4, after Meister failed to pay the arbitration deposit. Meister was also under travel restrictions stemming from an unrelated federal indictment in Florida. He did not disclose these criminal proceedings to the arbitrator or to defendants. He filed a motion to appear electronically on the basis of poor health. Defendants discovered his involvement in criminal proceedings and Meister refused the arbitrator’s requests to verify his health status. His request to appear electronically was denied. The Court affirmed the district court’s ruling and remanded the case for determination of the appellees’ attorney fees and costs.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Frederick Skillern: Real Estate Case Law — Common Interest Communities, Covenants, and CCIOA

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a series of posts in which Denver-area real estate attorney Frederick Skillern provides summaries of case law pertinent to real estate practitioners (click here for previous posts). These updates originally appeared as materials for the 32nd Annual Real Estate Symposium in July 2014.

frederick-b-skillernBy Frederick Skillern

Triple Crown at Observatory Village Association v. Village Homes of Colorado
Colorado Court of Appeals, November 7, 2013
2013 COA 150
Construction defect claims; interlocutory review; relationship between revised Nonprofit Corporation Act and the Common Interest Ownership Act.

Arising from alleged construction defects in a common interest community, this interlocutory appeal under C.A.R. 4.2 presents four questions of first impression in Colorado, which the court answers as follows:

  1. Where an association is a nonprofit corporation, the Colorado nonprofit act establishes the time limit for amending its declaration based on action taken without a meeting;
  2. The statutory power to engage in “litigation” under C.R.S. § 38-33.3-302(1)(d) includes arbitration;
  3. C.R.S. § 38-33.3-302(2) does not invalidate the mandatory arbitration provision, because the dispute resolution procedures apply to parties other than the declarant; and
  4. Colorado consumer protection act claims may be subject to mandatory arbitration, because the CCPA does not include a nonwaiver provision.

Village Homes, a residential developer, built homes subject to recorded covenants, and thereby created an association, Triple Crown. Triple Crown was set up as a nonprofit corporation under C.R.S. §§ 7-121-101, et seq. In the declaration of covenants, the developer included a dispute resolution procedure for claims arising from the design or construction of homes in the Triple Crown development. The declaration required that construction defect claims be arbitrated under American Arbitration Association rules.

In 2012, residents began a campaign to amend the declaration by repealing the arbitration clause. Unfortunately, it took more than sixty days to gather the votes to amend the covenants. After sixty days, 48% of the members had cast votes in favor of revocation. After another sixty days, the Association had obtained the required 67% of votes to effect the amendment. The Association recorded the amendment, and then brought this action against Village Homes, alleging negligent construction, Colorado Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) violations, and breach of fiduciary duties.

Village Homes moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, based on the arbitration clause in the declaration. It argued that the amendment repealing the arbitration provision was ineffective because the Association failed to amend Article 14 within the time limits in the Nonprofit Corporations Act, specifically C.R.S. § 7-127-107(2), which deals with time limits for actions taken without a meeting. The trial court granted the motion, dismissed the case, and ordered the case to arbitration. This order is affirmed on appeal. The court holds that when an association amends its declaration without a meeting under the CCIOA, the association, if it is a nonprofit corporation, must comply with the 60-day time limit provided in section 7-127-107.

The Court also agreed that the Common Interest Association Act gives power to associations to “institute, defend, or intervene in litigation or administrative proceedings . . . on the matters affecting the common interest community.” However, the court reasons that “litigation” includes both civil actions in court and arbitrations. It holds that the mandatory arbitration clause did not infringe on the association’s statutory power to “institute litigation.”

The association then argues that CCIOA § 38-33.3-302(2) invalidated Article 14. The trial court rejected this argument. The court agreed with the trial court, finding that the CCIOA section forbids only restrictions unique to the declarant. Article 14 controlled disputes between all parties.

The trial court rejected the association’s argument that its CCPA claims should not be subject to mandatory arbitration, because CCPA provisions by statute “shall be available in a civil action.” The court holds that such a right can be waived, and that Article 14 of the Triple Crown declaration was such a waiver.

 

Ryan Ranch Community Assn., Inc. v. Kelley
Colorado Court of Appeals, March 27, 2014
2014 COA 37M
Liability for homeowner association assessments; annexation; developer side agreement.

This is an interesting situation involving a developer, a side agreement with another landowner to exempt that owner’s land from subdivision covenants, and the annexation provisions of the CCIOA. As a prequel, the following general principles stated in the dissent by Judge Terry set the stage.

  • “Provisions of this article may not be varied by agreement. . . . A declarant may not . . . use any . . . device to evade the limitations or prohibitions of this article or the declaration.” C.R.S. § 38-33.3-104. . . .
  • Members are not “entitled to set up agreements reached with the developer as defenses to the obligation to pay assessments . . . . [T]he developer does not have the power to waive the assessment obligations imposed on property within the common-interest community.” Restatement (Third) of Property: Servitudes, 6.5, cmt. e (2000).

Nice notions, but the developer here found the approval process for a second filing of his development sometimes required some last-minute adjustments. He had a side agreement with Kelley, an owner of a minority of land to be included in a second filing of a large development, to keep the “Kelley Lots” from control of any covenants or new HOAs. At the late stages of approval of the new filing, however, the developer included Kelley’s land in the filing – Kelley signed the plat – and sold the lots in bulk to Ryland.

Ryland, going along with the deal, sold the Kelley lots immediately back to developer, and the developer then deeded the land to Kelley. Kelley sold the lots to another builder, who sold homes to consumers. Several years go by, during which the consumers enjoy neighborhood improvements, and then the HOA takes action to collect assessments – including back fees totaling $70,000. The homeowners had constructive notice of the plat and the declaration from exceptions to their deed warranties. In defense, the homeowners and Kelley argued that their lots had not been appropriately “annexed” into the association. The decision goes through the statutes, and two judges reverse the trial court and hold that the requirements for annexation had not been met.

The reasoning of the majority goes like this. To exercise a development right under CCIOA, a developer must comply with the plat and map requirements of C.R.S. § 38-33.3-209 and the recording requirements of C.R.S. § 38-33.3-217(3). The homeowner defendants argue that to exercise a reserved development right, CCIOA requires the recording of an amendment to the declaration that must contain certain information and be properly indexed. The court agrees that the recording of an Official Development Plan and the declaration was not sufficient to meet these requirements. The original declaration cannot logically be considered an amendment to itself such that it could annex the Kelley Lots. Moreover, nothing was denominated as an amendment, nothing assigned identifying numbers to newly created units, there was no reallocation of interests among all units, and no common elements were described. Nothing on the Filing 2 plat map subjected the described property to the Declaration.

On the other hand, the dissent notes, the Declaration provides that the additional lots will be annexed into the HOA when (1) a plat for additional properties to be annexed is recorded, and (2) either an annexation form is recorded, or a deed for real property within the plat is conveyed from Ryland to a third party other than Ryland. “On November 17, 2005, Ryland recorded the Filing 2 plat, which included the Kelley Lots. On December 20, 2005, Ryland conveyed the Kelley Lots back to the developer by deed. These two actions — filing of the plat and conveyance by deed — fulfilled the requirements of the Declaration to annex real property to the HOA.”

CCIOA fans and developers’ counsel will want to dive into this discussion — and avoid those shortcuts.

Frederick B. Skillern, Esq., is a director and shareholder with Montgomery Little & Soran, P.C., practicing in real estate and related litigation and appeals. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with real estate, professional responsibility and attorney fees, and acts as a mediator and arbitrator in real estate cases. Before joining Montgomery Little in 2003, Fred was in private practice in Denver for 6 years with Carpenter & Klatskin and for 10 years with Isaacson Rosenbaum. He served as a district judge for Colorado’s Eighteenth Judicial District from 2000 through 2002. Fred is a graduate of Dartmouth College, and received his law degree at the University of Colorado in 1976, in another day and time in which the legal job market was simply awful.

Tenth Circuit: Contract’s No Third-Party Beneficiary Provision Effectively Barred Claims of Third-Party Beneficiary Entities

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Gorsuch Ltd., B.C. v. Wells Fargo National Bank Association on Tuesday, November 4, 2014.

Renie and David Gorsuch founded Gorsuch, Ltd., a retail store, in 1962, and subsequently founded Gorsuch, Limited at Aspen and  Gorsuch, Limited at Keystone to operate additional retail stores. They founded Gorsuch Cooper to own the property from which Gorsuch, Ltd. at Aspen operates its business. The three child entities are collectively known as the Gorsuch Entities. In 2008, Gorsuch, Ltd. obtained a $14 million line of credit from Wells Fargo, and the credit agreement explicitly contained a no third-party beneficiary (NTPB) provision. When Gorsuch’s retail sales were lower than expected in 2009, Wells Fargo suspended the line of credit. Gorsuch Ltd. and the Gorsuch Entities brought suit against Wells Fargo for damages in state court, but Wells Fargo removed to federal court for diversity jurisdiction. Wells Fargo moved to dismiss the Gorsuch Entities’ third-party beneficiary claims due to the NTPB provision.

The district court determined the Gorsuch Entities were impermissible third-party beneficiaries and held the NTPB provision precluded them from seeking relief. The district court dismissed the Gorsuch Entities, granted Wells Fargo’s motion to dismiss the third-party claims, stayed the proceeding while Wells Fargo and Gorsuch, Ltd. proceeded to arbitration, and administratively closed the case without prejudice. Gorsuch, Ltd. moved to amend the complaint to include the Gorsuch Entities, but the district court denied the motion since the case was administratively closed and no one had petitioned to reopen it. Gorsuch, Ltd. eventually petitioned to reopen the case, but later withdrew the motion as it arbitrated its claims. After the district court’s deadline for reopening passed, it dismissed the case without prejudice. Gorsuch, Ltd. subsequently moved to reopen the case, which was granted, and moved for the court to confirm the arbitration award and file a third amended complaint along with the Gorsuch Entities. The district court affirmed the arbitration award, concluding Gorsuch, Ltd.’s involvement in the case. A magistrate judge filed a minute order clarifying that Gorsuch, Ltd. was the only proper plaintiff in the case, and the district court judge agreed, finding that the Gorsuch Entities had been dismissed from the litigation and had not shown good cause to file the third amended complaint. The Gorsuch Entities filed a timely appeal.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit, applying Colorado law, found that (1) the district court correctly dismissed the Gorsuch Entities, and (2) properly denied their motion to amend. The Tenth Circuit found the Gorsuch Entities were not permissive assignees under the contract with Wells Fargo, and in fact were barred from bringing claims by the contract’s NTPB provision. Although Wells Fargo understood the business relationship between Gorsuch, Ltd. and the Gorsuch Entities, the contract expressly prohibited litigation from the Gorsuch Entities, therefore the district court’s dismissal of the Entities’ claims was correct. The Gorsuch Entities asserted that the district court gave improper weight to the NTPB provision, but there was no evidence in writing that the Entities were permissible third-party beneficiaries under the contract.

The Tenth Circuit also found that the district court correctly denied the Gorsuch Entities’ motion to amend the complaint. They were dismissed as parties in November 2011, and their July 2013 motion to amend was both untimely and showed no good cause to amend the complaint. Because the Gorsuch Entities lacked good cause for the delay in filing their amended complaint, the district court’s dismissal was proper.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the Gorsuch Entities as parties and denial of their motion to amend.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Participation in Mandatory Arbitration Affirmed Existence of Disputed Contract

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Harper Hofer & Associates, LLC v. Northwest Direct Marketing, Inc. on Thursday, November 6, 2014.

Contract—Arbitration—Waiver—Colorado Uniform Arbitration Act.

Defendants engaged plaintiff to provide expert reports and possible testimony in an unrelated legal matter. The parties exchanged various engagement letters, each containing an arbitration clause. Plaintiff later initiated arbitration proceedings against defendants for the fees and costs associated with the work it performed. Defendants, via e-mail to the arbitrator, requested that a court determine whether the parties had executed a valid contract (and, thereby, had agreed to arbitration). However, defendants also requested that the arbitrator make a determination that no contract between the parties existed and, after receiving an unfavorable ruling on that issue, participated in the arbitration proceedings. Ultimately, the arbitrator found in favor of plaintiff and against defendants, and ordered defendants to pay plaintiff $27,982.24. The district court granted plaintiff’s motion to convert the arbitration award to a civil judgment and denied defendants’ motion to vacate.

On appeal, defendants argued that the trial court erred when it converted the arbitration award to a civil judgment over defendants’ objections at both the arbitration and district court stages based on the nonexistence of a valid contract. Under the Colorado Uniform Arbitration Act, the court, not the arbiter, decides whether a controversy is subject to an agreement to arbitrate. However, defendants waived their objection to the validity of the agreement containing the arbitration clause by actively participating in the arbitration proceeding and not timely seeking judicial review. The judgment was affirmed and the case was remanded to the district court for determination of reasonable attorney fees.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of  The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Ambiguities in Arbitration Agreement Must Be Resolved in Favor of Arbitration

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Sanchez v. Nitro-Lift Technologies, L.L.C. on Friday, August 8, 2014.

Miguel Sanchez, along with co-plaintiffs Shane Schneider and Eddie Howard, worked for Nitro-Lift Technologies in and around Johnston County, Oklahoma, servicing and monitoring oil rigs. At the beginning of their employment, they signed a “Confidentiality/Non-Compete Agreement.” They claim they were not allowed to read the document, ask questions, or have an attorney review it before signing. The agreement, which Nitro-Lift alleges is an employment agreement despite its title, contains a broad arbitration clause requiring arbitration for “any dispute, difference or unresolved question” between Nitro-Lift and the employee.

The employees brought suit against Nitro-Lift in the Eastern District of Oklahoma, alleging violations of the FLSA because they were forced to work more than forty hours nearly every week and did not receive overtime compensation from Nitro-Lift for the hours they worked in excess of forty hours per week. In response, Nitro-Lift filed a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration pursuant to the provision in the purported employment agreement, or, alternatively, a motion to stay pending arbitration. Plaintiffs argued the arbitration agreement was unenforceable as to their FLSA claims for a variety of reasons, their wage disputes did not fall under the scope of the arbitration clause, the arbitration clause’s fee-shifting provisions were impermissible as to their employment dispute, and the forum selection clause and application of commercial arbitration rules make the clause unenforceable because they would force employees to pay substantial costs they cannot afford. The district court denied Nitro-Lift’s motion to compel arbitration, ruling that the contract’s broad arbitration clause did not encompass wage disputes because the contract only applied to confidentiality and non-competition. Nitro-Lift filed an interlocutory appeal, and on the same day filed a new motion to dismiss based on plaintiffs’ amended complaint adding Howard and reasserting the same issues contained in its original motion. The district court denied Nitro-Lift’s second motion as a motion for reconsideration. Nitro-Lift timely appealed and the appeals were consolidated for Tenth Circuit review.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the dispute regarding the applicability of the arbitration clause. The Tenth Circuit found a strong presumption in favor of arbitration, noting that any ambiguities must be resolved in favor of arbitration. Because the Tenth Circuit found ambiguity regarding whether the arbitration clause applied to the dispute at hand, it ruled that arbitration was required and reversed the district court’s denial of the motion to compel arbitration.

The district court did not address plaintiffs’ FLSA claims, and the Tenth Circuit declined to address them for the first time on review, instead remanding to the district court for determination of plaintiffs’ unresolved issues. The Tenth Circuit also left for the district court determination of whether the fee-shifting provision in the arbitration clause rendered the agreement unenforceable in light of U.S. Supreme Court and Tenth Circuit precedent. The Tenth Circuit also declined to address plaintiffs’ argument that Nitro-Lift’s willingness to waive the fee-shifting provision, the forum selection clause, and the rules governing arbitration constituted an impermissible unilateral contract amendment, instead leaving this issue for the district court’s determination.

The district court’s denial of Nitro-Lift’s motion to compel arbitration was reversed and the case was remanded for further findings consistent with the Tenth Circuit’s opinion.

Tenth Circuit: Withheld Disputed Funds Due Upon Resolution of Dispute

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in BP America Production Co. v. Chesapeake Exploration, LLC on Friday, May 2, 2014.

BP and Chesapeake entered into a purchase and sale agreement (PSA) for $1.75 billion regarding certain oil and gas properties. The PSA allowed the purchase price to be adjusted downward or upward based on property defects or benefits discovered by the parties before closing. “Title defects” would decrease the purchase price in favor of BP, and “title benefits” would increase the purchase price in favor of Chesapeake.  However, the adjustments would not affect the purchase price until they met the aggregate defect threshold of $35,000,000. The PSA contained three arbitration provisions: disputes regarding title defects and benefits would be referred to title arbitration, disputes regarding accounting issued would be covered in accounting arbitration, and a third, catch-all arbitration would apply to any dispute arising out of or relating to the PSA.

After closing, the parties agreed on title defects of $116,234,556. Less the aggregate threshold, the parties agreed BP was owed $81,234,556. Title disputes were submitted to title arbitration around the same time.  BP sought approximately $46 million for disputed title defects, and Chesapeake sought approximately $22 million for disputed title benefits and “credits.” While the title arbitration was pending, BP submitted a proposed final accounting statement reflecting the agreed title defects of approximately $80 million. To BP’s surprise, Chesapeake responded with an exception report changing the $80 million to $58 million, which Chesapeake said was the agreed-upon amount minus the amount Chesapeake was disputing in title arbitration. BP did not raise the withheld $22 million in arbitration.

In an effort to wrap up ongoing accounting arbitration, BP sent a letter to Chesapeake offering to settle the final statement. It said that the parties had “reached consensus regarding the minimum price adjustment owed to BP which is $59,857,470” and offered to withdraw from accounting arbitration upon payment of that amount. Chesapeake accepted.

The title arbitration panel issued an award finding $11,526,434 in title defects (favoring BP) and $3,727,031 in title benefits (favoring Chesapeake). In explanatory comments, the panel noted that it made no determination of whether these amounts exceeded the aggregate threshold, or whether its ruling would actually cause any money to exchange hands. BP requested payment from Chesapeake. Because the $3 million in title benefits awarded to Chesapeake did not exceed the aggregate threshold, Chesapeake received no price adjustment to offset the $22 million it previously withheld, and BP requested the full $33 million. Chesapeake paid the $11 million, but refused to pay the $22 million. BP then asked the panel to clarify and modify its award and order Chesapeake to pay the $22 million, and requested attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party. Chesapeake contested the panel’s jurisdiction and claimed it could not entertain BP’s request. Chesapeake also opposed BP’s request for attorneys’ fees, claiming that Chesapeake, not BP, was the prevailing party.

The panel found that it retained jurisdiction over the dispute and noted that it was the panel’s understanding that the withheld amounts would become due if the withholding party did not prevail. The panel said that the parties should submit briefing if they could not resolve the dispute. Chesapeake  continued to dispute the panel’s jurisdiction, refused to comply with the briefing schedule, and would not pay the $22 million. The panel ordered BP to provide a detailed explanation of why it was owed $22 million, which it did, but Chesapeake refused to reply. Chesapeake instead filed a complaint in Oklahoma state court seeking to confirm and modify the panel’s December 30, 2009 award, to vacate all rulings issued by the panel after the December 30, 2009 award, to enjoin the panel from issuing further rulings, and for a declaratory judgment that the panel lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate any further disputes. BP removed to federal court and counterclaimed for fees and a declaration of its entitlement to the $22 million. The district court later granted BP’s motion to stay the litigation pending completion of the arbitration proceedings. The arbitration panel found that Chesapeake owed BP $22 million, subject to any defenses Chesapeake might have outside the scope of the arbitration.

The parties filed competing motions to confirm in the district court. Chesapeake’s motion sought confirmation of the December 30, 2009 award only and to have all later awards vacated. The district court agreed with Chesapeake and ordered that the panel exceeded its jurisdiction by awarding the $22 million to BP. That order is the subject of BP’s cross-appeal.

The district court requested a joint proposal from the parties on how to proceed with regard to BP’s counterclaim for $22 million and fees. Both sides’ proposals failed, though, and after a 3-day bench trial, the district court found that Chesapeake waived its right to arbitrate the remaining disputes and that Chesapeake’s contract defenses failed. The court entered judgment in favor of BP for $22,265,302 plus interest. Chesapeake appeals from that judgment. The district court later granted in part BP’s motion for attorneys’ fees and costs and awarded $1,403,669.38 against Chesapeake for fees and disbursements. Chesapeake appeals that judgment as well.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the record and determined that Chesapeake waived its right to arbitrate, and the attempt to arbitrate after that waiver was disingenuous. Chesapeake’s argument that BP’s claim was not timely was ineffective because the dispute did not arise until after completion of arbitration. Chesapeake also argued that BP’s counterclaim was not cognizable under the FAA, citing authority from other circuits. The Tenth Circuit does not have a rule prohibiting counterclaims in confirmation, and it rejected Chesapeake’s proposal. The Tenth Circuit next addressed BP’s cross-appeal. BP advised that if the Tenth Circuit rejected Chesapeake’s arguments, its appeal would be moot, and the Tenth Circuit agreed. Finally, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the award of attorney fees against Chesapeake.