Alternative Dispute Resolution

You’ve just represented a client in an arbitration proceeding…and lost. The client wants to “appeal” the decision. Now what? The only remedy your client has is to request that the court vacate or modify the arbitration award. However, this is no small task.

A recent decision by New York County Commercial Division Justice Charles E. Ramos (NSB Advisors, LLC v C.L. King & Assoc., Inc., 2018 NY Slip Op 32533 [Sup. Ct., NY County 2018]) serves as a reminder that a party seeking to vacate an arbitration award faces a heavy burden. Arbitration awards are almost always upheld by New York State courts because the standard of review is so high. An arbitration award must be upheld when the arbitrator offers “even a barely colorable justification for the outcome reached.”

The burden of proof lies with the party that is challenging the arbitration award to show the court why the award should be vacated. Pursuant to CPLR §7511, an application to vacate or modify an arbitration award may be made by a party within 90 days after the decision is rendered.

The only two instances when an arbitration award may be vacated include (1) instances involving fraud, corruption or misconduct of the arbitrators or (2) where an arbitration award exhibits “manifest disregard of the law”. To vacate an arbitration award on the latter ground, a court must find that the arbitration panel knew of a governing law yet refused to apply it or ignored it, and that the governing law was well defined, explicit and clearly applicable.

Examples of what could constitute a “manifest disregard of the law” include “an explicit rejection of controlling precedent” and “a decision that is logically impossible”. However, it is important to remember that the arbitration panel is entitled to make its own factual and legal findings, just like a judge or a jury. Alleging mere factual error by the arbitrator or misapplication of complex legal principals will not suffice.

A party seeking to vacate an arbitration award is best served by making every effort to obtain the reasoning behind the arbitration award. However, this must be requested prior the rendering of the award by the arbitrator. Moreover, arbitrators are not automatically required to explain their decision and Article 75 of the CPLR does not impose this requirement. Unfortunately, a failure to provide an explanation for the award is not grounds for vacating it.

However, in some instances, the parties can request that the arbitration panel issue an “explained decision.” Pursuant to FINRA Rule 13904(f), an arbitration panel may contain a rationale for the underlying award if the parties jointly request what is known as “an explained decision”. However, if only one party seeks this relief, the arbitrator is not required to honor the request. In this case, the arbitration was governed by FINRA, but the parties failed to request an explained decision. Justice Ramos reasoned that without an explanation behind the award, it would be next to impossible to determine whether the award was, in fact, a “manifest disregard of the law”.

Finally, a party seeking to vacate an arbitration award must provide the entire arbitration record to the court. Justice Ramos criticized Respondent in this case for not providing the court with a complete record of the arbitration materials despite acknowledging that the complete record included over 16,000 pages of transcripts and 800 exhibits. He reasoned that the court could not possibly have the opportunity to conclude that the arbitration panel “manifestly disregarded the law” with just “a mere snapshot of what occurred.”

Takeaway: Vacating an arbitration award is an uphill battle and attorneys seeking this relief from the court should avail their client to every procedural advantage, including seeking an explained decision from the arbitration panel and submitting the entire record for the court’s review.

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