Sealing of Record to Confirm Arbitration Award Rejected in Favor of Specific Redactions of Only the Most Sensitive Information

Kantor Photo (8-2012)By Mark Kantor

A decision of the US District Court for the District of Columbia in the middle of last month offers a reminder of the hurdle a party must meet in order to seal from public access the entire record of a proceeding to confirm or vacate an arbitration award.  In XPO INTERMODAL, INC. v. American President Lines, Ltd., Civ. Action No. 17-2015 (PLF) (D. D.C., October 16, 2017)(available here – https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=5024133744129204150&hl=en&lr=lang_en&as_sdt=20003&as_vis=1&oi=scholaralrt), the applicant (XPO INTERMODAL) sought an order in a confirmation proceeding to seal its petition to confirm the arbitration award (denominated, oddly, as a “Binding Mediation Decision”), as well as all exhibits.  US District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman denied the request notwithstanding a confidentiality provision in the contract underlying the arbitrated dispute (“this matter can and should be open to the public to the greatest extent possible”).  But he did order that the parties seek to agree in redactions of “only the most sensitive information.”

XPO INTERMODAL sought the order to seal “its Petition to Confirm Arbitration Award, as well as two exhibits attached thereto: the Binding Mediation Decision issued by the three-member mediation panel and the parties’ Amended and Restated Stacktrain Services Agreement and Schedules A-F and Appendices 1-4 thereto.”  The Court characterized that as a request deny public access to “what, in effect, amounts to the entire substantive record in this case.”   In support, the petitioner referred to the confidentiality provisions of the services agreement out of which the underlying dispute arose, and further stated that the award and exhibits contained “highly sensitive propriety [sic] commercial information,” including information regarding the parties’ “rates and business practices.””  Apart from those general arguments, however, XPO INTERMODAL offered little to the court to justify sealing the record.

In support of its motion, applicant directs the Court to the confidentiality terms of the parties’ Services Agreement and represents that “[b]oth parties have strong property and privacy interests in maintaining the confidentiality of these documents, as they contain highly sensitive propriety [sic] commercial information,” including information regarding the parties’ “rates and business practices.” See Mot. 4. Beyond these general assertions, however, applicant’s motion proffers little to justify sealing what, in effect, amounts to the entire substantive record in this case.

The District Court began its analysis by referring to the “strong tradition” of public access to judicial proceedings.

This country has a “strong tradition of access to judicial proceedings.” United States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293, 317 n.89 (D.C. Cir. 1980). “[A]s a general rule, the courts are not intended to be, nor should they be, secretive places for the resolution of secret disputes.” United States v. Bank Julius, Baer & Co., 149 F. Supp. 3d 69, 70 (D.D.C. 2015) (citing Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978))….

Therefore, “[t]he starting point in considering a motion to seal court records is a strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings.”  To obtain an order to seal judicial records in the Federal courts despite this presumption, the applicant must satisfy the court regarding whether there is a need for public access, the extent of prior public access, whether someone has objected to disclosure, the strength of property and privacy interests, and the purposes of the documents in the court proceeding.

To determine whether a party seeking to seal court records has overcome this presumption, courts apply a six-factor balancing test to assess:

(1) the need for public access to the documents at issue; (2) the extent of previous public access to the documents; (3) the fact that someone has objected to disclosure, and the identity of that person; (4) the strength of any property and privacy interests asserted; (5) the possibility of prejudice in those opposing disclosure; and (6) the purposes for which the documents were introduced during the judicial proceedings.

After reciting this “six-factor balancing test,” though, Judge Friedman simply jumped to his conclusion without addressing how the various factors weighed in the circumstances of this application.  The only two factors noted by the District Court Judge in his analysis were the presumption in favor of public access and the ease of redaction.

Given the strong presumption in favor of public access and the ease with which confidential information may be redacted from documents before they are publicly filed, the Court concludes that this matter can and should be open to the public to the greatest extent possible.

Importantly, Judge Friedman was not persuaded that exhibits should be sealed in their entirety “simply because they contain or refer to confidential information.”  Generalized business interests in confidentiality (even if mutual between the parties) would not suffice, especially if redaction is feasible.

First, generalized business interests in confidentiality simply “do[] not rise to the level of the privacy and property interests that courts have permitted to outweigh the public’s right of access.” ….   This is particularly so where trade secrets, pricing, and other sensitive information regarding business practices or strategies may be redacted. ….

Judge Friedman noted in particular a line of cases rejecting the argument that confidentiality provisions in the underlying contract were sufficient to provide for sealing the judicial record.

Furthermore, the parties’ mutual desire for confidentiality, without more, does not justify the sealing of the entire substantive record of the case. See Grynberg v. BP P.L.C., 205 F. Supp. 3d 1, 3 (D.D.C. 2016) (explaining that even if disclosure would violate the terms of the parties’ settlement and confidentiality agreements, such agreements between private parties “do not dictate whether documents can be filed under seal” (citing In re Fort Totten Metrorail Cases, 960 F. Supp. 2d 2, 9-11 (D.D.C. 2013))); see also Am. Prof. Agency v. NASW Assurance Serv., 121 F. Supp. 3d 21, 25 (D.D.C. 2013); Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FTC, 710 F.2d at 1180.

The District Court acknowledged that XPO INTERMODAL’s confirmation filings appeared to contain “some potentially sensitive business information, including rates and schedules.”  Accordingly, the Court ordered the parties to seek to agree on redactions to the documents rather than complete sealing of the filings.

Here, it appears that the exhibits to applicant’s Petition do include some potentially sensitive business information, including rates and schedules, but the filings otherwise do not warrant sealing from the public. The Court thus sees no reason why the Petition itself should not be made publicly available in full, nor any reason why the exhibits thereto should not be made generally available, with only the most sensitive information redacted. The Court is confident that a more rigorous examination undertaken in good faith will lead to a more tailored and appropriate proposal for redaction.

****

FURTHER ORDERED that the parties shall confer regarding the Petition’s exhibits and submit proposed redactions to the Court on or before October 30, 2017

The simple lesson from XPO INTERMODAL is that, if the judge is paying attention, requests to seal the entirety of a judicial proceeding to confirm an arbitration award are likely to be met with an instruction instead to identify particular redactions of “only the most sensitive information.”

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.

Subpoenas to Arbitrators Quashed for Lack of Clear Evidence of Impropriety

Kantor Photo (8-2012)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.

THE NEUTRAL’S NOTEPAD: Writing an Award that Withstands the Scrutiny of the Parties and the Courts

THE NEUTRAL’S NOTEPAD: Writing an Award that Withstands the Scrutiny of the Parties and the Courts

Eaton_TimBy J. Timothy Eaton

The end game in arbitrations is the final award. In most business-to-business commercial arbitrations, the final award is a reasoned explanation of the facts and law, and the relief being awarded. Since most arbitration awards are confidential, the audience for the written award is the parties and if subject to a review, the courts. What should be considered in writing an award that will withstand their scrutiny?

The first consideration is the title of the award. How the award is labeled is important and has consequences. If it is titled an “Interim Award,” its duration should be no longer than the arbitration itself and it should be entitled to reconsideration at any time before the final award is entered.

If it is a “Partial Final Award” – such as a finding as to liability only – it generally would not be subject to a reconsideration and may be appealable to the courts unless the tribunal indicates otherwise. The tribunal should make its intention clear as to whether it intends for the award to be judicially reviewable at that stage or not.

If it is a “Final Award,” the assumption is the tribunal has completed its task and the award is subject to enforcement or judicial review. The tribunal’s authority is over at that point.

Once the award has been labeled properly, the next step in preparing the award is to identify the parties and their status. This may seem obvious, but the issues and the relief may depend upon which party is raising a claim or defense. With the frequency of counterclaims, characterizing who is bringing the claim and the relief sought becomes an important point in the analysis.

Most arbitrators then like to proceed with a factual and procedural background to set the framework for the issues and analysis. This certainly makes sense, but first it may be helpful to consider the issues that you are going to be resolving. The issues really control the findings and facts which are necessary to recite in the award. What facts are material to the issues will become more evident once you have articulated the issues being decided.

Most arbitrators then set forth the procedural history by identifying what has occurred prior to the hearing. This section is really more for reviewing courts than for the parties because the parties know what has transpired. But is important for someone new to the arbitration to understand that the parties had an ample opportunity to engage in discovery, make their arguments, submit their exhibits and have their witnesses heard and examined. Some of the grounds for vacatur are based upon whether the parties had a fair and meaningful opportunity to present their case, so spelling out in detail how the arbitration progressed lends credence to the award.

Then the crux of the award follows with the statement of the issues that the parties are raising and how they are decided. It is critical that a party understands that the tribunal understood what issues they were raising. The tribunal may not agree with a party’s position on a given issue, but both for the purposes of confidence in the award and its possible reviewability, every material issue that was raised should be identified and ruled upon. A “sweeper” clause that issues not identified were fully considered (a clause I have used myself at times) is not generally satisfactory to the parties or to reviewing courts. The tribunal’s ruling on the merits of the issue is really secondary to the fact that the issues were properly identified.

Next is the analysis of the material issues and the reasoning behind the conclusions reached. Each conclusion should be supported by a logical interpretation of the facts and law. References to case law are not always necessary but if there are statutes or authorities on given issues that the parties have relied upon, some reference to them in the award will at least signal that they were considered.

Most tribunals are both very measured in their analysis of the issues and not unduly critical of a party’s position. Arguments made by the parties are generally made in good faith and, even if you disagree with them, they should be treated with the same measure of good faith.

Last but not least, the award should specify the relief being afforded. It is a good practice to have the parties in the prehearing briefs state specifically the relief they are seeking in the claims or counterclaims. Sometimes an earlier filed claim is not clear as to what relief the party is seeking, and the relief sought may change as the discovery in the arbitration unfolds. So a delineation in the prehearing brief of the issues and the relief sought is very helpful to the tribunal.

After considering the specific relief requested, it is a good idea to review the arbitration agreement again to determine whether it has any limits on what relief can be given. Limits on punitive damages in particular are frequently included in the arbitration agreement. Other limitations may include a bar on consequential damages or attorneys fees.

Finally, do a gut check on what final relief should be ordered. Is it warranted by the facts in the law? Are you compromising the award because you do not agree with the law? Is it what the parties expect? Before you pull the trigger, you want to make sure your aim is on what the arbitration agreement contemplates and more importantly, requires.

In conclusion, each step in writing the award from the title to the relief must be carefully considered. The result is sometimes not as important as the process achieving it. Make sure the award informs parties and the courts as to how you arrived at it.

Tim Eaton is a Fellow of the College of Commercial Arbitrators and a member of the CPR Panel of Distinguished Neutral Arbitrators in Chicago. He is a member of the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals and a member of the American Arbitration Association’s Roster of Commercial Arbitrators. He has lectured and written on arbitration topics. He is a litigation partner at the law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister.