After months of arguing over defective solar panels with his supplier, California X-Tra Green Solar, Ed Ezeeout finally calls his favorite attorney at Fixx, Itt & Quick. Dutifully gathering all emails, invoices and transport documents with X-Tra Green, Ezeeout comes across the parties’ master sales agreement. Giving it another look, he discovers a “boiler plate clause” agreeing to mandatory arbitration. In the confidence of his favorite attorney, Ezeeout bemoans the time and cost of resolution and suggests, hopefully, “Well, at least the arbitration will be in Texas, will be confidential and will save me time and money. And, if we don’t like the way things are going, we can avoid arbitration and get a jury trial. Either way, we can appeal any unfavorable or wrong judgment, right?” Does Ezeeout risk even more frustrations?
Yes. Originally a viable alternative to the time and expense of a jury trial, the Federal Arbitration Act and the Texas Arbitration Act hoped to offer a confidential, final dispute resolution that would save litigants time and money. Many claim it now does neither.
- Arbitration agreements are valid. Resistance is futile. Texas courts almost always enforce them. Unless both parties agree not to enforce an arbitration clause, either party may send their dispute to arbitration. Ezeeout is not likely to get a jury trial.
- Arbitration may not be in Texas. X-Tra Green’s “boiler plate language” will likely require arbitration in California and applying California law, increasing Ezeeout’s cost and uncertainty.
- Arbitration isn’t always cheaper. It can be, but only if the arbitration clause is tightly drafted or the clients force a budgeting process. Litigants pay for either one or three arbitrators; even one costs more than a Texas court judge. Litigants often pay administrative services which can be prohibitive for small disputes. Depending upon the agreement, all of the costs of the judge and of administration are imposed either equally or against the losing party. Discovery can be just as expensive, if not more, depending upon the involvement of the arbitrator(s) and the permitted scope of discovery fights.
- Arbitrators aren’t always qualified. Selecting the best arbitrator for your circumstances requires careful consideration of cost, demeanor, conflicts of interest with the other attorney and their client, usefulness of fact-specific experience, and, perhaps, predilection to one kind of claim or the other. Depending upon complexity, specific field or industry knowledge may be helpful. Avoiding conflicts and knowing who your adversary knows may be even more critical. Finally, investigate whether your arbitrator is both capable and willing to rule decisively, and to not just “split the baby.”
- Arbitration might not be faster. It should be, but that’s not always the case. While intentionally not duplicating all of the rules of civil procedure and evidence, some arbitration service rules risk creating unfamiliarity. And, unfamiliarity affects timeliness. Properly managed, arbitration can provide flexibility to fashion the procedure and discovery to the circumstances. It hinges on the arbitrator(s) pushing to resolution rather than permitting the parities and their counsel to fight over irrelevant discovery and procedural matters. As the saying goes, time is money.
- Arbitration isn’t necessarily confidential. This is only true if the arbitration agreement specifically says so. Even then, it should include appropriate confidentiality language to suit the circumstances.
- Arbitration isn’t usually appealable. Unless the arbitration agreement provides otherwise (and even if it does, appellate courts disagree on application), an arbitration award is final and not appealable. The only “cure” is to insure that the arbitrator is diligent, qualified and fair.
- Arbitration isn’t enforceable unless written. The arbitration award is enforceable only by a written judgment or opinion. Absent the losing party voluntarily fulfilling the award, the arbitration award must be returned to a state or federal court for enforcement. If the trial court vacates the arbitration award, that’s appealable by the winning party in arbitration by court ordered mandamus as fellow blogger Drew York accomplished.
Tilting the Scales in Your Favor.
Properly drafted and implemented, an arbitration clause in your company agreement can permit you to keep dispute resolution in Texas, before an arbitrator of your selection, with narrowly crafted, appropriate discovery. It could even include a limited resolution process permitting an accelerated timetable to reduce expenses, and perhaps even position the resolution to minimize damages to the business relationship between litigants. The starting point?
- Customize the contractual arbitration procedure to suit your business needs.
- Avoid off-the-shelf “boiler plate” arbitration provisions from the Internet, non-litigation-savvy counsel or customers.
- Get a written (and, therefore, enforceable) award or opinion.
For example, quality control can be aided by: asking your counsel to prepare a budget and calibrate it to the amount and importance of the case; setting limitations on discovery to avoid discovery overkill by broadly preserving every back-up tape, hard drive and document, and focusing on the specific subject matter, evidence and likely witnesses by promptly investigating to find out what is likely discoverable, where it is stored and who the likely witnesses are; mutually agreeing to exchange access to inspect and copy documents at the expense of the inspecting party; limiting email production, if any, by custodians, search terms and date range; stipulating to facts not in issue; and agreeing to use affidavit and deposition testimony for noncontroversial testimony.
If you are still reading this and you are an in-house counsel or business owner looking to make your arbitration options more cost and time efficient, retired Justice Jim Moseley of my firm and I would like to buy you a cup of coffee. We have some ideas about a streamlined process for arbitration that we would like to poll. No obligations and no warranties, express or implied!