By Mark Kantor
Last week, a Magistrate Judge in the US District Court of the Eastern District of North Carolina quashed document subpoenas served on three arbitrators seeking evidence of alleged non-disclosures of relationships with counsel in connection with a FINRA securities arbitration award. In In the Matter of Arbitration Between Shepherd, et al., v. LPL Financial LLC, No. 5:17-CV-150-D (Order, Nov. 1, 2017), Magistrate Judge Robert Jones decided that the failure by one arbitrator, Lynne T. Albert, to disclose in the current arbitration two previous arbitrations where counsel for the arbitration defendants had represented parties before her, did not constitute “clear evidence of impropriety” justifying post-award discovery from the arbitrator. Moreover, Magistrate Judge Jones additionally rejected petitioner Shepherd’s effort to seek discovery by means of document subpoenas addressed to the two other arbitrators, Richard J. Igou and Richard S. Zaifert, which petitioner Shepherd sought to justify not on grounds of “impropriety” but rather because “the alleged impropriety by Albert makes it necessary to “double-check” the other two panelists for additional nondisclosures.” This decision is yet another in the string of Federal court rulings rejecting aggressive efforts by disappointed parties to extend the “evident partiality” standard under the US Federal Arbitration Act for vacatur of awards due to arbitrator misconduct, as well as reiterating a high hurdle that must be met before the court will permit discovery from an arbitrator.
The Magistrate Judge first concluded that the proper standard for permitting post-award discovery from an arbitrator was “clear evidence of impropriety,” rather than the lesser general standard from Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) that the information sought was “relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case” (footnotes omitted).
the weight of persuasive case law demands a heightened showing of “clear evidence of impropriety” to obtain discovery from a non-party arbitrator. See Lucent Techs. Inc. v. Tatung Co., 379 F.3d 24, 32 (2d Cir. 2004) (concluding discovery into potential arbitrator bias was not appropriate where the party “has not presented the ‘clear evidence of impropriety’ we have held necessary before granting post-award discovery into potential arbitrator bias.”) (citing Andros v. Marc Rich & Co., A.G., 579 F.2d 691, 702 (2d Cir. 1978)); Van Pelt v. UBS Fin. Servs., No. 3:05-CV-477, 2006 WL 1698861, at * 2 (W.D.N.C. June 14, 2006) (applying the clear evidence of impropriety standard and denying discovery of an arbitrator’s employment records to determine whether he failed to disclose a material fact); see also TransAtlantic Lines LLC v. Am. Steamship Owners Mut. Prat. & Indem. Ass’n, Inc., 253 F. Supp. 3d 725 (S.D.N.Y. 2017)(“In order to take discovery from the ADR panel itself, a litigant must present ‘clear evidence of impropriety,’ such as bias or corruption.”) (citation omitted).
Arguing in the alternative, Shepherd also asserted that arbitrator Albert’s alleged non-disclosures constituted the requisite “clear evidence.” Magistrate Judge Jones was unmoved.
Plaintiffs argue they have presented clear evidence of impropriety based on Albert’s two nondisclosures. … The Second Circuit’s decision in the Andros case is instructive here. The Andros court determined that an arbitrator’s undisclosed professional relationship with one of the parties was insufficient to establish clear evidence of impropriety and did not justify discovery into the issue. … The arbitrator in Andros knew the president of one of the companies involved in the arbitration, as both men previously served on 19 arbitration panels together. … Despite claims by the opposing side that the president and arbitrator were “close personal friends,” the lower court found the relationship was professional in nature because the interactions were limited to arbitration panels and other social functions related to arbitrations. …. Moreover, the arbitrator had no financial stake or other interest in the outcome of the arbitration. … Based on these facts, the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision and found no “clear evidence of impropriety” was presented to support an evidentiary hearing, to compel discovery, or to vacate the ruling.
The Judge considered the instant dispute to be similar to the 2nd Circuit Andros case. The contact between Albert and the counsel in the other two arbitrations was, he wrote, “strictly professional.” Further, the FINRA arbitration award was unanimous, and thus any “interactions” between Albert and the counsel had no impact on the result. And, in any event, Albert eventually disclosed the “interactions” six months before petitioners chose to allege that the conduct constituted impropriety.
Similarly here, the undisclosed relationship is strictly professional-a lawyer appearing before an arbitrator-and the circumstances surrounding Albert’s nondisclosures do not give the impression of clear impropriety: Plaintiffs won the Underlying Arbitration with a unanimous award from all three panelists, including Albert…; and instead of exhibiting behavior consistent with wrongdoing, such as hiding her interactions with Defense Counsel, Albert disclosed this relationship in the June and July 2016 Arbitrations almost six months before Plaintiffs first alleged any impropriety by the Arbitrators in the Underlying Arbitration….
At bottom, “[t]o allow discovery of an arbitrator under these circumstances would “encourage the losing party to every arbitration to conduct a background investigation of each of the arbitrators in an effort to uncover evidence of a former relationship” and “increase the cost and undermine the finality of arbitration, contrary to the purpose of the United States Arbitration Act of making arbitration a swift, inexpensive, and effective substitute for judicial dispute resolution.”” Accordingly, Judge Jones quashed the subpoena addressed to arbitrator Albert.
The Judge then dealt shortly with Shepherd’s further subpoenas seeking documents from the other two arbitrators to “double-check” for possible non-disclosures (“Such reasoning is in direct conflict with a policy favoring the finality of arbitration and does not establish the requisite clear evidence of impropriety”).
With respect to Igou and Zaifert, Plaintiffs present no evidence of impropriety, but rather argue that the alleged impropriety by Albert makes it necessary to “double-check” the other two panelists for additional nondisclosures. …. Such reasoning is in direct conflict with a policy favoring the finality of arbitration and does not establish the requisite clear evidence of impropriety to justify the discovery sought from Igou and Zaifert.
Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral and a regular contributor to CPR Speaks. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.