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.

Insurer Appeals Evident Partiality Finding That Overturns Arbitration Award

By Ugonna Kanu

A New York federal court has overturned an arbitration award brought against Lloyd’s of London underwriters on the ground of evident partiality of one of the tribunal members who failed to disclose his relationship with the respondent, Florida-based Insurance Company of Americas.

ICA has filed an appeal from a decision vacating the award in favor of Lloyd’s to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. ICA claimed that New York U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick confused the need for its party arbitrator’s “disinterestedness” with the need to be impartial.

ICA filed its brief July 20.

Broderick’s decision in Certain Underwriting Members at Lloyd’s of London v. Ins. Co. of the Americas, Case No: 1:16-cv-00323 (March 31)(available at http://bit.ly/2uIGkqY), was based on the evidence that the party-appointed arbitrator failed to disclose his relationship with the party that appointed him even after several opportunities were provided for such disclosure.

Broderick found that the “undisclosed relationships are significant enough to demonstrate evident partiality,” and vacated the award requiring Lloyd’s-represented reinsurance contracts to pay excess claims on two injury cases insured by ICA.

ICA argued that that “the only arbitrator qualification” for its tribunal pick “is that he be disinterested, which . . . means solely [a lack of] financial or other personal stake in the outcome.”

ICA also contended that other circuit courts “have found that evident partiality standards either do not apply or are even more relaxed in the case of party appointed arbitrators in tripartite industry arbitrations.”

District Court Judge Broderick adopted the evident partiality test set out in Three S Del., Inc. v. DataQuick Info. Sys., Inc., 492 F.3d 520, 530 (4th Cir. 2007(available at http://bit.ly/2vasPRv), to determine this case. The test includes four factors: the extent of the arbitrator’s personal interest in the proceedings; how direct the arbitrator’s relationship is with the party he was alleged to favor; the connection of the relationship to the arbitrator; “and the proximity in time between the relationship and the arbitration proceeding.”

In the case, the arbitrator and the ICA not only share the same building, but also the same suite. ICA’s treasurer and secretary, also a director of the company, is additionally the chief financial officer of the arbitrator’s company. The arbitrator had a business connection between the ICA president and others whose names were repeatedly mentioned during the arbitration, providing the arbitrator an ample opportunity to disclose, which he didn’t.

Finally, when the arbitrator was expressly asked of his business relationship with ICA, he said he had none.

Applying these factors, the federal district court held that the non-disclosure demonstrates evident partiality and is sufficient ground to vacate the award, which the court viewed a nondomestic award under the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, better known as the New York Convention.

The reasoning, according to the opinion, was that, considering the relationship between the arbitrator and ICA, “a reasonable person would have to conclude that [the] arbitrator who failed to disclose under such circumstances was partial to one side.”  Applied Indus. Materials Corp. v. Ovalar Makine Ticaret Ve Sanayi, A.S., 492 F.3d 132, 137 (2d Cir. 2007).

The opinion, however, noted that Lucent Techs. Inc v. Tatung Co., 379 F.3d 24, 28, 30 (2d Cir. 2004) held that the court didn’t “establish a per se rule requiring vacatur of an award whenever an undisclosed relationship is discovered.”

The appeal was filed on April 20. In its July brief asking the Second Circuit to reinstate the award, ICA returns to the distinction between disinterestedness and neutrality.

“The only neutrality requirement was disinterestedness—the lack of personal or financial stake in the outcome,” the brief noted, adding: “But the district court did not vacate the award on the ground that the party-appointed arbitrator failed to disclose matters that would require a reasonable person to conclude that the arbitrator had a financial or personal interest in the outcome. It vacated based on relationships that were irrelevant to the disinterestedness requirement.”

The ICA brief asking the Second Circuit to consider the case emphasized that “there is no evidence that the arbitrator had a personal or financial interest in the outcome.”

The author is an attorney in Nigeria who has just completed her L.L.M. in Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.  She is a CPR Institute 2017 summer intern.

 

CASE SUMMARY: Pershing LLC v. Kieback et al – Rare US Federal Court Ruling Assessing When Tribunal’s Rejection of Discovery Request May Constitute Improper Refusal to Hear Evidence Justifying Vacatur

Kantor Photo (8-2012)By Mark Kantor

Last week, the US District Court for the District of Louisiana issued a ruling in Pershing LLC v. Kieback et al (Judge Lance M. Africk, Civ. Act. No. 14-2549, May 22, 2017, available at https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=5882751863819676163&hl=en&as_sdt=20006) confirming the arbitration award by a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) arbitration panel, notwithstanding efforts to vacate the award on grounds that the arbitral panel’s failure to require production of certain documents in discovery, or to even review those documents in camera before denying a motion to compel production, constituted “misconduct … in refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy” under the US Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), “evident partiality” on the part of the arbitrators, and “manifest disregard of the law.”

This decision is one of the rare US Federal court rulings assessing when a tribunal’s rejection of a discovery request may constitute an improper refusal to hear evidence justifying vacatur.  As you will see, the Louisiana Federal District  Court set the standard high.

The dispute arose out of R. Allen Stanford and Stanford Financial Group’s fraudulent Ponzi scheme (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Stanford) resulting in Stanford being ordered by law enforcement agencies to disgorge $6.7 billion  and pay a $5.9 billion fine.

A number of retired individuals living in Louisiana (the “Louisiana Retirees”) who had invested in Stanford certificates of deposit brought FINRA arbitrations for an aggregate of about $80 million in damages against Pershing LLC (“Pershing”), the clearing broker for the Stanford Group, alleging due diligence and non-disclosure theories on the basis of which the clearing broker might be held liable for a portion of the damages caused by the fraud (footnotes and many citations omitted from quotations).

They claim that Pershing, as Stanford Group Company’s clearing broker, failed to exercise due diligence in its business relationship with Stanford Group Company and failed to disclose adverse financial information which would have resulted in the Ponzi scheme being uncovered sooner than it was.

Pershing naturally presented defenses to those claims.

The Retirees’ claims were all consolidated into a single arbitration hearing, a process that (by the way) may be worth exploring by readers interested in the relationship between consolidation in arbitration and class arbitration.

During the arbitration, the Louisiana Retirees sought discovery, including document production.  As to certain of the documents covered by a discovery demand, Pershing asserted two privileges; the attorney-client privilege and a US financial services regulatory privilege known as the “Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”) privilege” established by US Federal regulation to protect financial institutions who are required to report suspicious financial activities to Federal enforcement officials.  The arbitration panel upheld those assertions of privilege.

The arbitration panel held that Pershing was not required to produce to the Louisiana Retirees certain categories of documents which Pershing claimed were privileged. The documents consist inter alia of emails which Pershing claimed were protected under the attorney-client privilege and “Incident Reports” which Pershing says it uses to begin the process of internally investigating potential suspicious activity. Pershing claims the second category of documents are protected by the SAR privilege.

After extensive hearings, the arbitral panel ruled in favor of Pershing on the merits.

After a two week hearing at which the panel heard over 1,600 pages of testimony from fifteen witnesses and considered over 900 separate exhibits, the panel ruled in Pershing’s favor.

Pershing then sought confirmation of the FINRA award in the District Court.  The Louisiana Retirees sought vacatur.  The District Court was therefore faced with the need to balance two oft-argued principles in confirmation/vacatur proceedings; “an arbitration panel’s decision cannot be overturned simply because it was incorrect. …. But under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), an arbitration panel’s refusal to hear evidence material and pertinent to the controversy can result in vacatur of the arbitration award when the refusal deprived a party of a fundamentally fair hearing.

The Louisiana Retirees primarily argued that the arbitration was “fundamentally unfair” due to their inability to obtain and present the documents withheld by Pershing from document production.

The Louisiana Retirees first argue that the panel’s decision should be vacated pursuant to section 10(a)(3) of the FAA because the panel denied the Louisiana Retirees access to key documents, and the withholding of the documents was prejudicial to the Louisiana Retirees to the extent it rendered the arbitration proceeding fundamentally unfair. Their position is essentially that the Louisiana Retirees were unable to prove their case and were unable to refute false testimony offered by Pershing witnesses during the arbitration proceeding because they did not have certain documents which they have now had an opportunity to review.

In particular, the Retirees pointed to the decision by the arbitral panel not to review the documents in camera before upholding the privilege claims and to their substantive privilege rulings.

The prejudice claimed by the Louisiana Retirees really stems from two separate decisions of the arbitration panel: (1) the decision not to review the documents in camera before deciding whether Pershing should produce them; and (2) the decision on the merits of the claimed privileges.

In an earlier decision in the judicial confirmation/vacatur proceedings, Judge Africk of the District Court had previously allowed limited discovery by the Louisiana Retirees.  When faced with the same assertions of privilege by Pershing, the Court itself reviewed the documents in camera (unlike the arbitral panel) to determine whether they were covered by the SAR privilege under federal law.  In its consequent ruling on privilege (available at https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=17082729013022954526&hl=en&as_sdt=20006), the District Court upheld most of Pershing’s privilege assertions but concluded that some of the documents (or parts thereof) were not privileged and should have been disclosed.

After closely reviewing the documents produced for in camera review by Pershing, the Court finds that the Incident Reports at Tabs 1-67 bear no arguable relationship to the claims or defenses in this case and are not discoverable for that reason. On the other hand, the Court finds that the Incident Reports at Tabs 68-74 should be produced, as they are relevant to the claims and/or defenses of the Defendants in this case and are not privileged. Additionally, the redacted version of the Summary Reports that correlate to Tabs 68-74 should be produced, as should the redacted versions of Tabs 1-14 of the Summary Reports produced in Pershing’s third production on March 14, 2017.

Judge Africk ordered those documents turned over to the Louisiana Retirees as part of the judicial vacatur proceedings.  The Retirees then relied upon the fact that the arbitral tribunal had neither reviewed those documents in camera nor required them to be produced in document production as their basis for arguing fundamental prejudice.  As the Court noted in its subsequent decision last week, “Now the question is simply whether, considering the produced documents in conjunction with the record of the arbitration proceeding, the Louisiana Retirees have satisfied one of the recognized grounds for vacating an arbitration award.”

The Louisiana Retirees assert three bases for vacatur in this lawsuit. According to their motion, they contend “(1.) that the arbitration proceeding was fundamentally unfair because severe prejudice occurred to the Louisiana Retirees when Pershing did not disclose to the Louisiana Retirees [certain documents which were not produced by Pershing until this Court ordered them produced in this lawsuit]; (2.) the obvious partiality and bias of the arbitrators because of the apparent `assumed veracity’ of Pershing when the Panel allowed Pershing to serve as the judge and jury on defining the scope of the documents withheld under attorney client privilege and the SARs/AML privilege; and (3.) that the Panel committed manifest error reviewing the evidence that was actually presented to the arbitration hearing based upon the review standard of the Second Circuit because of the application of New York Law.”

Judge Africk addressed the Retirees’ “fundamentally unfair” presentation first.  He rejected the Retirees’ arguments.  The Judge began by repeating the commonly-accepted “exceedingly narrow” standard for vacatur of an arbitration award in FAA jurisprudence.

“In light of the strong federal policy favoring arbitration, judicial review of an arbitration award is extraordinarily narrow.” …. “Under this review, an award may not be set aside for a mere mistake of fact or law.” …. “Instead, Section 10 of the FAA provides the only grounds upon which a reviewing court may vacate an arbitrative award.”

Looking at the argument that the panel’s failure to review the documents in camera before ruling on the privilege justified vacatur, the District Court ruling noted that the FINRA arbitration rules do not require in camera review.  Moreover, commented the Court, the overall discovery process was not fundamentally unfair (“A FINRA arbitration panel has great latitude to determine the procedures governing their proceedings and to restrict or control evidentiary proceedings.”).

With respect to the first decision—not to review the documents in camera—the Court observes that nothing in the FINRA arbitration rules requires in camera review prior to ruling on a discovery motion. To the extent the Louisiana Retirees claim that the manner in which the panel resolved discovery issues rendered the proceeding fundamentally unfair, the Court rejects that argument. Even if this Court would have proceeded differently, this Court cannot conclude that the entire arbitration proceeding was tainted because of it. See Bain Cotton Co. v. Chesnutt Cotton Co., 531 F. App’x 500, 501 (5th Cir. 2013) (“Regardless whether the district court or this court—or both—might disagree with the arbitrators’ handling of Bain’s discovery requests, that handling does not rise to the level required for vacating under any of the FAA’s narrow and exclusive grounds.”).

“A FINRA arbitration panel has great latitude to determine the procedures governing their proceedings and to restrict or control evidentiary proceedings.” …. Indeed, even in federal court the decision whether to conduct an in camera inspection is wholly within the discretion of the district court. …. The record reveals that discovery was extensively litigated before the panel, which decided six motions to compel, received multiple rounds of briefing from the parties, and held a telephonic hearing to address the SAR privilege and the request for an in camera review. …. Ultimately, the Louisiana Retirees received over 121,000 documents from Pershing totaling over 635,000 pages. …. The discovery process was not fundamentally unfair. See Prestige Ford v. Ford Dealer Computer Servs., Inc., 324 F.3d 391, 395 (5th Cir. 2003) (abrogated on other grounds) (“In the case at hand, hearings were held and each disputed item was given consideration by the panel; thus, more than adequate opportunity was afforded to the parties and the minimum standards of fundamental fairness were met.”).

Having disposed of the Retirees’ complaint based on the failure of the panel to review the documents in camera before ruling, the Court then turned to the second assertion of fundamental unfairness – the panel’s merits decision that the attorney-client privilege and the SAR privilege shielded all of the documents withheld by Pershing.  Here too, Judge Africk was not persuaded that the tribunal’s decision deprived the Retirees of a fair hearing. The District Court considered that the documents not disclosed during the arbitration were cumulative of documents that were produced (“The documents produced to the Louisiana Retirees in this litigation are cumulative of the documents produced to the Louisiana Retirees in the arbitration proceeding. …  There is no reasonable basis to suggest that if the new documents had been produced during the arbitration proceeding, the result would have been different.”).

With respect to the second decision complained of by the Louisiana Retirees— the panel’s decision that the attorney-client privilege and the SAR privilege shielded all of the documents withheld by Pershing—the Court also concludes that the decision did not render the arbitration proceeding fundamentally unfair. …. Even if this Court disagrees with the arbitration panel regarding the appropriate scope of those privileges, the Court does not find that the Louisiana Retirees were deprived of a fair hearing as a result of the decision.

The documents produced to the Louisiana Retirees in this litigation are cumulative of the documents produced to the Louisiana Retirees in the arbitration proceeding. A review of the record shows that Pershing produced a vast amount of material during the arbitration proceeding which evidenced that high-level Pershing employees were aware as early as 2006, to one degree or another, of potential “red flags” regarding Stanford Group Company. …. The Louisiana Retirees marshaled this evidence in support of their position that Pershing knew or should have known that there were serious questions about Stanford Group Company’s legitimacy during the period that the Ponzi scheme was in operation, and that Pershing should have done more sooner to raise the alarm regarding Stanford Group Company. The arbitration panel rejected the Louisiana Retirees’ arguments. There is no reasonable basis to suggest that if the new documents had been produced during the arbitration proceeding, the result would have been different.

Because the Louisiana Retirees were able to introduce comprehensive evidence supporting their theory of the case, the deprivation of additional arguably relevant evidence did not deprive the Louisiana Retirees of a fair hearing.

The Judge in any event also assessed whether the evidence in the withheld documents about Pershing’s knowledge regarding Stanford’s suspicious behavior was a primary focus of the arbitration.  Judge Africk ruled it was not.  Moreover, the additional evidence would not have shown a direct conflict with testimony of Pershing witnesses.

To the extent the Louisiana Retirees argue that the newly produced documents directly contradict the testimony of Pershing witnesses in the arbitration, the Court finds the Louisiana Retirees’ position to be a mischaracterization of the record. Pershing witnesses acknowledged that there were concerns raised regarding Stanford Group Company as early as 2006. The primary focus of the arbitration proceeding was not whether Pershing had notice of suspicious behavior by Stanford Group Company, but rather whether Pershing acted reasonably to address their concerns and—more importantly—even if Pershing acted unreasonably, whether Pershing violated any legal duty owed to the Louisiana Retirees. (Pershing argued during the arbitration that Pershing could have no liability for fraud committed by Stanford Group Company even if Pershing should have discovered that fraud or done more to prevent it). All of these issues were exhaustively litigated.

Importantly, the Court also pointed out that, if there were ambiguities in the record, any “doubts or uncertainties must be resolved in favor of upholding the arbitration award.”  Applying this legal standard, the Court rejected the Retirees’ vacatur argument.

The Louisiana Retirees also packaged the same underlying situation as an argument that, by not reviewing the withheld documents in camera, the arbitrators evidenced partiality on the part of the arbitrators. The Retirees’ “evident partiality” attack actually involved three separate issues; (1) the in camera issue, (2) the fact that the then-CEO of Pershing had been a member of the FINRA Board of Governors, and (3) the fact that Pershing had presented a defense in the arbitration (the so-called “FINRA defense”) that regulatory examination and enforcement failures (i.e., alleged misconduct by FINRA and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) in failing to promptly identify the Stanford Ponzi scheme) meant that FINRA and the SEC should be held equally responsible for the failure to discover the Ponzi scheme earlier.

The Louisiana Retirees next argue that the panel’s decision should be vacated pursuant to section 10(a)(2) of the FAA because there was evident partiality or corruption by the arbitrators. They say the bias was made evident in three ways. First, the Louisiana Retirees claim that the panel’s failure to conduct the in camera review proves the panel was biased in favor of Pershing. Second, the Louisiana Retirees argue the panel was biased because the CEO of Pershing during the relevant time period, Richard Brueckner, was a former member of the FINRA Board of Governors. Third, the Louisiana Retirees contend that the panel was inclined to rule in favor of Pershing because Pershing asserted a so-called “FINRA defense,” in which Pershing supposedly argued to the panel that regulator misconduct or negligence served as a defense to Pershing, i.e. that if Pershing was liable to the Louisiana Retirees then FINRA and the SEC must be deemed equally culpable for failing to discover the Ponzi scheme sooner.

Judge Africk did not accept any of these arguments by the Retirees.  With respect to the claim that the the arbitrators showed bias by declining in camera review, the Judge referred back to his conclusion that the tribunal’s conduct did not produce an unfair hearing.

The Court has already addressed the Louisiana Retirees’ argument that the panel should have reviewed Pershing’s documents in camera. The FINRA rules do not require such an in camera review, and placed in the context of the lengthy discovery proceedings as a whole the panel’s decision not to review the documents does not suggest bias.

The Court then disposed of the other two assertions of bias (“that they strenuously objected to Mr. Brueckner [the former Pershing CEO who had been on the FINRA Board] not testifying in person in the order desired by the Louisiana Retirees during the arbitration proceeding, and that they objected to Pershing advancing the FINRA defense”).  With respect to the issue of the former CEO not be compelled to testify, Judge Africk declined to consider that the former CEO’s position on the FINRA Board produced any partiality on the part of the arbitrators appointed by FINRA.

As for Mr. Brueckner’s relationship with FINRA, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recently rejected an identical argument by a losing party to an arbitration, and the Court finds its reasoning persuasive and applicable here. See Freedom Inv’rs Corp. v. Hadath, 2012 WL 383944, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 7, 2012) (“Blumenschein’s service on FINRA’s Board of Governors is insufficient to meet the objective test for assessing bias. Pinter has not made any showing that an individual member of the FINRA Board of Governors, or indeed the Board of Governors as a whole, has any influence over the selection of FINRA [Dispute Resolution] arbitrators, their compensation, or their assignment to panels. At the very most, he has raised the specter of an appearance of bias, insufficient grounds for disturbing an arbitration award.”).

The last bias claim put forward by the Louisiana Retirees, based on the “FINRA defense,” fared no better (“Even if Pershing had notified the regulators of any concerns it had regarding Stanford Group Company, it would not have made a difference in terms of shutting down the Ponzi scheme because the regulators and law enforcement agencies already knew far more about Stanford Group Company than anything Pershing could have reported.”).

Finally, with respect to the alleged bias created by the FINRA defense, the Court finds the Louisiana Retirees’ characterization of the defense somewhat misleading. This defense—one of many advanced by Pershing—was essentially a causation argument: Even if Pershing had notified the regulators of any concerns it had regarding Stanford Group Company, it would not have made a difference in terms of shutting down the Ponzi scheme because the regulators and law enforcement agencies already knew far more about Stanford Group Company than anything Pershing could have reported. However the defense is characterized, the Court is not at all convinced that Pershing’s assertion of a particular legal theory demonstrates that the arbitration panel was biased.

Notably, the District Court independently ruled that these “evident partiality” arguments had been waived by the Louisiana Retirees.  Once again, a positive response by counsel to the formula question put by the arbitral panel at the end of the hearings (did they receive “a full and fair opportunity to present their case”) played an important role.

At the beginning of the arbitration hearing, counsel for the Louisiana Retirees stated that they accepted the panel. At the end of the arbitration hearing, counsel for the Louisiana Retirees agreed that they had enjoyed “a full and fair opportunity” to present their case. …. Counsel for the Louisiana Retirees even thanked the panel for its time. … (“We appreciate y’all’s efforts.”). At that point, the Louisiana Retirees already knew of all the panel’s decisions described above, yet they failed to object. It was only once the arbitration panel ruled against them that the bias argument emerged. The waiver rule is designed to prevent just such a circumstance from occurring.

The Louisiana Retirees also made a “manifest error” argument, arguing that, by operation of choice of law principles, the judge-made New York law “manifest error” ground for vacatur was applicable in the Louisiana District Court.  The District Court rejected the choice of law argument, holding instead that the position in the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit against any “manifest error” vacatur ground was binding.  Moreover, in a brief footnote, Judge Africk also held that “Regardless, this Court finds no circumstances evidencing manifest disregard of the law by the arbitration panel.”

The principal import of this ruling lies in the willingness of the District Court to conclude, in the face of its own prior ruling that some of the withheld documents should have been produced, that vacatur was still not appropriate.  But, to reach that conclusion, the Court found it necessary to rely in part on its own conclusion that the information in those documents was cumulative of information already in the arbitration record so that no fundamental unfairness had occurred.  The decision therefore has something for everyone in future disputes on each side of this issue.  Of course, it is not unlikely the Louisiana Retirees will appeal Judge Africk’s decision to the for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.  So, there may very well be more to come later this year.

 

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. 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.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

CASE SUMMARY: Ann Eleanor Ploetz, as Trustee For the Laudine L. Ploetz, 1985 Trust v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC

Kantor Photo (8-2012)By Mark Kantor

A decision last Thursday from the US District Court for the District of Minnesota is worth a brief report, as an example of the rejection by US Federal courts of the argument that an arbitrator’s failure to disclose is an automatic basis alone for vacating the resulting arbitration award.  In Ann Eleanor Ploetz, as Trustee For the Laudine L. Ploetz, 1985 Trust v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC, Civ. No. 17-1112 (PAM/DTS)(May 25, 2017, available at https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14229967613986037394&hl=en&lr=lang_en&as_sdt=20003&as_vis=1&oi=scholaralrt), the District Court (Paul Magnuson, District Judge) concluded that “every Court of Appeals to have addressed the issue has rejected Ploetz’s interpretation of Commonwealth Coatings that “the fact of the nondisclosure alone mandates vacatur under either a `reasonable impression of bias’ or `appearance of bias’ standard.”.

Ploetz does not cite any case decided after Commonwealth Coatings [Commonwealth Coatings Corp. v. Continental Casualty Co., 393 U.S. 145 (1968)] interpreting that decision to require vacatur of an award solely because an arbitrator failed to disclose relevant party contacts.  This is likely because there are no such cases.  It appears as though every Court of Appeals to have addressed the issue has rejected Ploetz’s interpretation of Commonwealth Coatings that “the fact of the nondisclosure alone mandates vacatur under either a `reasonable impression of bias’ or `appearance of bias’ standard.” Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Home Ins. Co., 429 F.3d 640, 644 (6th Cir. 2005); see also id. at 645 (explicitly rejecting “as dicta . . . the appearance of bias standard espoused in the [Commonwealth Coatings] plurality opinion”).

In Ploetz, the losing party in a 2016-2017 FINRA arbitration sought vacatur of the adverse arbitration award on the ground that one of the arbitrators (Goldman) had failed to disclose his 2012 participation as mediator in an unrelated FINRA matter involving the respondent in the arbitration, MSSB.  Goldman had, however, disclosed his service as arbitrator in 6 arbitrations involving Morgan Stanley Smith Barney (MSSB).  The parties in the instant arbitration had not objected on the basis of those disclosed matters.

FINRA requires that arbitrators disclose any potential conflicts, including past service as an arbitrator or mediator. ….  Goldman disclosed that he had served as an arbitrator in proceedings involving MSSB on four occasions and was currently serving as an arbitrator in two pending MSSB arbitrations. …  Neither party sought to disqualify him on the basis of these contacts with MSSB.  After a two-day hearing, the panel unanimously determined that Ploetz’s claims were without merit. …

In February [2017], Ploetz’s attorney learned that Goldman had served as a mediator in a 2012 proceeding in Michigan involving MSSB. ….   Mediation under FINRA is voluntary and private, akin to settlement discussions, and thus there was no record of this proceeding and it was handled by attorneys not involved in the instant arbitration.  The 2012 mediation was unsuccessful and that case eventually proceeded to arbitration, with the arbitration panel finding for the claimant and against MSSB. …  There is no indication that Goldman was involved in the case after the unsuccessful mediation.

Petitioner Ploetz argued that Goldman’s failure to disclose his service as mediator in the earlier MSSB matter required vacating the 2017 arbitration award for “evident partiality”.  She contended that the US Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Commonwealth Coatings [MK: the only, and famously internally inconsistent, set of Supreme Court opinions seeking to apply the “evident partiality” vacatur grounds in the US Federal Arbitration Act] “sets forth a bright-line rule that when the parties bargain for disclosure of conflicts and the arbitrator fails to disclose a conflict, the arbitration award must be vacated.”  Vacatur was required, said Ploetz, “because the parties agreed to be bound by the FINRA rules, and because the FINRA rules provide that failure to disclose is a “circumstance[] which might preclude the arbitrator from rendering an objective and impartial determination …, a refusal to vacate the award would frustrate the parties’ bargained-for legitimate expectations, not to mention the FAA’s standards.”

For that purpose, Ploetz also asserted that “it is inappropriate for the Court to consider any more recent appellate court interpretations of Commonwealth Coatings because the Supreme Court itself has not changed the Commonwealth Coatings holding.”

Judge Magnuson of the Federal District Court in Minnesota criticized that argument for treating the common-law system as “sclerotic.”

Her position that the law on this issue is sclerotic and may only be refined by the Supreme Court is not supported by either subsequent caselaw or by our legal system’s precedent-based jurisprudence, which relies on the evolution of legal principles through subsequent interpretations of Supreme Court opinions.

Automatic vacatur for arbitrator non-disclosure was not, therefore, mandatory.  Instead, said the Judge, the party seeking vacatur must still satisfy the “heavy burden” of showing “evident partiality”; “Even if an arbitrator fails to make a disclosure regarding potential conflicts of interest, a party must still “demonstrate evident partiality” on the arbitrator’s part.”  Moreover, “a party contending that an arbitration award should be vacated because of an arbitrator’s “evident partiality” bears a “heavy burden.””

Judge Magnuson then concluded that the failure by Goldman to disclose the 2012 MSSB mediation was not sufficient to show “evident partiality” in circumstances where the arbitrator had already disclosed 6 MSSB arbitrations without objection and the prior mediation had no demonstrated effect on the 2016-2017 arbitration.

Here, there is simply no evidence that Goldman’s prior mediation with MSSB had any effect on the resolution of Ploetz’s claim.  Indeed, Goldman disclosed six other MSSB-related proceedings over which he had presided and those proceedings did not cause Ploetz to question his impartiality.

 

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. 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.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.