Justia Arbitration & Mediation Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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Attorney Romanzi referred a personal injury case to his employer, the Fieger law firm; meanwhile, creditors were winning default judgments against Romanzi. The case settled for $11.9 million; about $3.55 million was awarded as attorney’s fees after Romanzi quit the firm. Romanzi’s employment at the firm entitled him to a third of the fees. Before Romanzi could claim his due, his creditors forced him into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The trustee commenced an adversary proceeding against the firm to recover Romanzi’s third of the settlement fees for the bankruptcy estate. The parties agreed to arbitration.Two of the three arbitrators found for the trustee in a single-paragraph decision that was not "reasoned" to the firm’s satisfaction. The district court remanded for clarification rather than vacating the award. On remand, the panel asked for submissions from both parties, which the trustee provided; the firm refused to participate. The arbitrators’ subsequent supplemental award, approved by the district court, awarded the trustee the fees plus interest. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the arbitrators’ original award was compromised according to at least one factor allowing vacation under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 10(a); that the act of remanding and the powers exercised by the arbitrators on remand violated the doctrine of functus officio; and that the supplemental award should have been vacated under the section 10(a) factors. The district court’s and panel’s actions fall under the clarification exception to functus officio. View "In re: Romanzi" on Justia Law

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Okada, “a titan of the gambling industry,” hired Bartlit to represent him in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against Wynn Resorts. The litigation settled in Okada’s favor for $2.6 billion. Okada refused to pay the $50 million contingent fee specified in the parties’ engagement agreement, which included an arbitration clause. Bartlit initiated arbitration before CPR in Chicago, the agreed-upon forum. Okada participated in the arbitration for over a year.Less than 72 hours before the evidentiary hearing, Okada informed the arbitrators that he would not be attending. The Panel stated that it would proceed without him and that his nonattendance could subject him to default. Okada replied that he rejected the validity of the engagement agreement and was unable to make the journey from Japan to Chicago for undisclosed medical reasons. Okada announced that he would not authorize his attorneys to participate in the arbitration, and canceled all witnesses, reservations, and services. The Panel held him to be in default and found that Okada owed the firm $54.6 million, including a $963,032 sanction for the costs and fees of the proceeding.Okada moved to vacate the award, arguing that he had been deprived of a fundamentally fair proceeding when the Panel decided the case without his participation or his evidence. The district court and Seventh Circuit rejected his argument. The Panel had several reasonable bases for proceeding without him and there was nothing unfair about the proceeding. View "Bartlit Beck, LLP v. Okada" on Justia Law

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Union Square owns the San Francisco building where Saks has operated a store since 1991. The lease's initial 25-year term was followed by successive options to renew; it mandates arbitration to determine Fair Market Rent for renewals. Section 3.1(c)(iv) states that “[e]ach party shall share equally the fees and expenses of the arbitrator. The attorneys’ fees and expenses of counsel for the respective parties and of witnesses shall be paid by the respective party engaging such counsel or calling such witnesses.” Section 23.10 permits a prevailing party to recover costs, expenses, and reasonable attorneys’ fees, “Should either party institute any action or proceeding to enforce this Lease ... or for damages by reason of any alleged breach ... or for a declaration of rights hereunder,The parties arbitrated a rent dispute in 2017. The trial court vacated the First Award, in favor of Union Square. To avoid re-arbitration, Union Square sought mandamus relief, which was summarily denied. While discussions concerning another arbitration were pending, Union Square filed a superior court motion to appoint the second arbitrator. The court-appointed arbitrator ruled in favor of Saks.The court of appeal affirmed the orders vacating the First Award and confirming the Second Award. Saks sought $1 million in attorneys’ fees for “litigation proceedings arising out of the arbitration,” not for the arbitrations themselves, citing Section 23.10. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the motion. Each party agreed to bear its own attorneys’ fees for all proceedings related to settling any disagreement around Fair Market Rent under Section 3.1(c). View "California Union Square L.P. v. Saks & Company LLC" on Justia Law

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In this California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) case, the Court of Appeal granted the petition for writ of mandate and directed respondent Los Angeles Superior Court to vacate its order awarding attorney fees to Charter and to conduct a new hearing to reconsider Charter's motion for attorney fees. At issue is whether an employer's arbitration agreement authorizes the recovery of attorney fees for a successful motion to compel arbitration of a FEHA lawsuit even if the plaintiff's opposition to arbitration was not frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.The court concluded that, because a fee-shifting clause directed to a motion to compel arbitration, like a general prevailing party fee provision, risks chilling an employee's access to court in a FEHA case absent Government Code section 12965(b)'s asymmetric standard for an award of fees, a prevailing defendant may recover fees in this situation only if it demonstrates the plaintiff's opposition was groundless. In this case, no such finding was made by the superior court in the underlying action before awarding real party in interest Charter its attorney fees after granting Charter's motion to compel petitioner to arbitrate his FEHA claims. View "Patterson v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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The arbitration award at issue here involved claims by a former investment fund manager and his former employers, namely, the investment funds. All parties were sophisticated and engaged in a business - not consumer - dispute. Both law firms were frequent users of the services of the ADR provider, JAMS. The motion to vacate was based on the sole ground that the arbitrator did not disclose the extent of JAMS’s “business relationship” with O’Melveny & Myers (one of the law firms) and the arbitrator’s ownership interest in JAMS (not more than .1 percent of total revenue in a given year). Appellant contended the arbitrator failed to make required disclosures. The sole basis for the appeal was the argument the arbitrator did not disclose information that could cause a reasonable person aware of the facts to entertain a doubt that the arbitrator would be able to be impartial. The trial court granted a motion to confirm an arbitration award and denied a motion to vacate that award. Based on the facts and circumstances shown by this record, and applying the analytical framework the Court of Appeal held that the arbitrator’s and JAMS’s disclosures were sufficient, and the arbitrator was not required to disclose more information about the extent of JAMS’s business with O’Melveny & Myers, or the arbitrator’s own ownership interest in JAMS. "There is no issue of a repeat party or lawyer being favored over a non-repeat party or lawyer; the parties in this business dispute are sophisticated; and the law firms were both frequent users of JAMS to the same extent." View "Speier v. The Advantage Fund, LLC" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was whether the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement plaintiff Brian Delaney signed when he engaged the representation of Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. was enforceable in light of the fiduciary responsibility that lawyers owe their clients and the professional obligations imposed on attorneys by the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs). In 2015, Delaney, a sophisticated businessman, retained Sills to represent him in a lawsuit. He met with a Sills attorney who presented him with a four-page retainer agreement. It was understood that Trent Dickey was slated to be the attorney primarily responsible for representing Delaney reviewed and signed the retainer agreement in the presence of the Sills attorney without asking any questions. After the representation was terminated, a fee dispute arose and, in August 2016, Sills invoked the JAMS arbitration provision in the retainer agreement. While the arbitration was ongoing, Delaney filed a legal malpractice action against Dickey and the Sills firm. The complaint alleged that Dickey and Sills negligently represented him. The complaint also alleged that the mandatory arbitration provision in the retainer agreement violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and wrongly deprived him of his constitutional right to have a jury decide his legal malpractice action. The trial court held that the retainer agreement’s arbitration provision was valid and enforceable. Additionally, the court determined that Delaney waived his right to trial by jury by agreeing to the unambiguously stated arbitration provision. The Appellate Division disagreed, stressing that Sills should have provided the thirty-three pages of JAMS arbitration rules incorporated into the agreement, that Sills did not explain the costs associated with arbitration, and that the retainer included a fee-shifting provision not permissible under New Jersey law. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that, for an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement to be enforceable, an attorney must generally explain to a client the benefits and disadvantages of arbitrating a prospective dispute between the attorney and client. "Delaney must be allowed to proceed with his malpractice action in the Law Division. We affirm and modify the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand to the Law Division" for further proceedings. View "Delaney v. Dickey" on Justia Law

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In 1997, Plaintiffs co-founded Gray Matter Holdings. A 1999 Withdrawal Agreement with Gray Matter entitled Plaintiffs to royalties on the sales of “Key Products.” In 2003, Gray Matter sold some assets to Swimways. After that sale, Plaintiffs took Gray Matter to arbitration four times over their royalty rights. The third arbitration determined that Gray Matter did not transfer its royalty obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement to Swimways but only transferred its intellectual property rights; Gray Matter, not Swimways, remained responsible for any royalty compensation owed to Plaintiffs. The fourth arbitration found no evidence to support Plaintiffs’ claim that Swimways tendered fraudulent filings to the Patent and Trademark Office regarding the intellectual property rights in the Key Products and that all intellectual property rights in the Key Products at issue had been transferred to Swimways.Plaintiffs filed suit, alleging that they were entitled to royalties for the Key Products and that Swimways tendered the alleged fraudulent filings. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the complaint and the imposition of $271,926.92 in sanctions. The claims were barred by principles of res judicata and the arbitrations were “binding and final” under the Withdrawal Agreement. An accounting showed that attorneys and staff spent 273.1 hours, charging an average rate of about $1,000 per hour, preparing the motions to dismiss and for sanctions. View "Matlin v. Spin Master Corp." on Justia Law

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McCluskey sought damages for the termination of her Airbnb account, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court granted a motion to stay the action and compel arbitration under the contract between McCluskey and Airbnb. McCluskey filed a claim for arbitration with the American Arbitration Association (AAA), which set deadlines for paying filing fees. McCluskey paid her fee; AAA acknowledged receipt. Airbnb sent the fee by wire transfer. AAA did not acknowledge receipt. In an April 9 email, AAA informed all counsel that it had closed the arbitration due to defendants’ failure to pay their filing fee. Defense counsel contacted AAA, and, on April 19, sent documentation of an April 5 wire transfer and an email explaining the payment had been sent together with another payment. On May 1, AAA emailed all parties that payment had been received and that AAA needed confirmation, by May 6, that they wanted the case reopened. Not having heard from McCluskey, on May 9 AAA sent “a final request for confirmation.” McCluskey again did not respond.On May 10, McCluskey sought to lift the stay, asserting that the defendants’ failure to pay their filing fee by April 5, constituted a default, waiver, or breach of the arbitration agreement. The court denied the motion. The defendants served a section 128.7 sanctions motion. The court of appeal affirmed an award of $22,159.50, as “reasonable” attorney fees for opposing the motion to lift the stay and declining to award fees incurred in bringing the sanctions motion. View "McCluskey v. Henry" on Justia Law

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Innovative Images, LLC sued its former attorney James Summerville, Summerville Moore, P.C., and The Summerville Firm, LLC (collectively, the “Summerville Defendants”) for legal malpractice. In response, the Summerville Defendants moved to dismiss the suit and to compel arbitration in accordance with the parties’ engagement agreement, which included a clause mandating arbitration for any dispute arising under the agreement. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that the arbitration clause was “unconscionable” and thus unenforceable because it had been entered into in violation of Rule 1.4 (b) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (“GRPC”) for attorneys found in Georgia Bar Rule 4-102 (d). The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the arbitration clause was not void as against public policy or unconscionable. The Georgia Supreme Court concluded after review that regardless of whether the Summerville Defendants violated GRPC Rule 1.4 (b) by entering into the mandatory arbitration clause in the engagement agreement without first apprising Innovative of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration, the clause was not void as against public policy because Innovative did not argue, and no court has held, that such an arbitration clause could never lawfully be included in an attorney-client contract. For similar reasons, the Supreme Court held the arbitration clause was not substantively unconscionable, and on the limited record before it, Innovative did not show the clause was procedurally unconscionable. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the appellate court's judgment. View "Innovative Images, LLC v. Summerville et al." on Justia Law

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In 1998, Bay and Oxbow entered into a limestone supply contract, agreeing to resolve any disputes according to specified “Dispute Resolution Procedures.” Oxbow began to provide lower quality limestone that posed a danger to Bay’s equipment. Bay agreed to pay—under protest—a price in excess of that permitted by the contract for adequate limestone. Negotiations and mediation failed. Bay filed a demand for arbitration. An arbitration panel unanimously held that Oxbow had breached the contract and awarded nearly $5 million in damages, costs, and interest. The panel did not award attorneys’ fees, concluding that the Dispute Procedures expressly deny it the jurisdiction to do so. The district court confirmed the award, agreeing that the contract did not permit the prevailing party to recover its attorneys’ fees.The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Procedure authorizing the allocation of costs states,“(but excluding attorneys’ fees which shall be borne by each party individually). The provision immediately following that grants the prevailing party a right to attorneys’ fees and another provision refers to attorneys’ fees. Those provisions can either be read together to permit the recovery of attorneys’ fees in court but not before an arbitration panel, or they are hopelessly contradictory and unenforceable. Bay presents a reasonable construction of the terms to harmonize them. View "Bay Shore Power Co. v. Oxbow Energy Solutions, LLC" on Justia Law