Ninth Circuit, Overturning an Award, Backs More Arbitrator Disclosure

By Daniel Bornstein

The Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals ruled this week that arbitrators are required to disclose their ownership interests in the organizations they are affiliated with and the organizations’ business dealings with the arbitration parties.

In Monster Energy Co. v. City Beverages LLC, Nos. 17-55813/17-56082 (9th Cir. Oct. 22)  (available at http://bit.ly/2PjmXzq), a 2-1 appellate panel vacated an arbitration award because the arbitrator, retired California state judge John W. Kennedy, failed to disclose both his ownership interest in JAMS and the fact that JAMS had administered 97 arbitrations for one of the parties.

The decision has important implications for arbitrators’ disclosure of their financial interests. Under the majority decision by Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith Jr.–joined by Oregon-based U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon, sitting by designation–it isn’t sufficient for arbitrators to vaguely state that they have an economic stake in the success of their organization, and to merely note that their organization has done business in the past with one of the parties.

Rather, arbitrators must make clear the specific nature of their economic interest—that is, their ownership–and the scope of those past business ties.

City Beverages had alleged that Monster Energy had committed a breach of contract. After an almost nine-year business relationship, Monster Energy terminated the distribution contract without cause, an act that was permitted by the contract as long as it made a severance payment. But City Beverages rejected a $2.5 million payment, invoking the Washington Franchise Investment Protection Act, which prohibits termination of a franchise contract absent good cause.

Monster Energy’s move was upheld in arbitration, and it was awarded $3 million in attorneys fees. City Beverages appealed to the Ninth Circuit on the basis that the arbitrator had not adequately disclosed his ties to JAMS, and his and his firm’s relationship with Monster Energy. See By Savannah Billingham-Hemminger, “Not Just the Arbitrator: Ninth Circuit Looks at Provider Disclosure Obligation,” 37 Alternatives 119 (September 2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2WmriUh).

As the panel opinion noted, an arbitrator is required to disclose when he has a “substantial interest in a firm which has done more than trivial business with a party.” Commonwealth Coatings Corp. v. Cont’l Cas. Co., 393 U.S. 145, 151-152 (1968). In turn, vacating an arbitration award is appropriate when the arbitrator neglects to disclose “any dealings that might create an impression of possible bias.” Id., at 149.

Judge Smith’s analysis of Arbitrator Kennedy’s “evident partiality”—a Federal Arbitration Act standard for overturning awards–is contained in two parts. First, it reasoned that the arbitrator’s ownership interest in JAMS was “sufficiently substantial” to warrant disclosure. A JAMS arbitrator who is a co-owner of the organization is entitled to a share of the profits from all arbitrations administered by JAMS, not merely the ones the neutral undertakes personally.

Because only about one-third of JAMS’ more than 400 neutrals are owners, Kennedy’s ownership interest “greatly exceeds the general economic interest that all JAMS neutrals naturally have in the organization.”

Second, the appeals court determined that JAMS and Monster Energy were engaged in “nontrivial business dealings” that were not disclosed to City Beverages. Over the past five years, JAMS had administered 97 arbitrations in which Monster Energy was a party. This is largely because the energy drink maker’s form contracts contain a provision identifying JAMS’ Orange County, Calif., office as its arbitrator source.

Kennedy submitted a disclosure statement, which read:

I practice in association with JAMS.  Each JAMS neutral, including me, has an economic interest in the overall financial success of JAMS.  In addition, because of the nature and size of JAMS, the parties should assume that one or more of the other neutrals who practice with JAMS has participated in an arbitration, mediation or other dispute resolution proceeding with the parties, counsel or insurers in this case and may do so in the future. “

The majority opinion considered this statement inadequate because it failed to mention Kennedy’s ownership interest in JAMS, and JAMS’ business relationship with Monster.

Judge Smith wrote

We thus hold that before an arbitrator is officially engaged to perform an arbitration, to ensure that the parties’ acceptance of the arbitrator is informed, arbitrators must disclose their ownership interests, if any, in the arbitration organizations with whom they are affiliated in connection with the proposed arbitration, and those organizations’ nontrivial business dealings with the parties to the arbitration.

The opinion notes, “Prospectively, arbitration organizations like JAMS, which are already well-accustomed to extensive conflicts checks and disclosures, will have no difficulty fulfilling, and even exceeding, the requirements described here.”

Judge Smith concluded that failing to disclose the extensive business relationship with Monster Energy and the arbitrator’s JAMS ownership interest “creates a reasonable impression of bias and supports vacatur of the arbitration award.”  The panel also overturned the fees.

Circuit Judge Michelle T. Friedland dissented, noting that she disagreed that in evaluating “whether the Arbitrator might favor Monster, the additional information the majority believes should have been disclosed would have made any material difference.”

She writes that the majority opinion is unclear on the nature and extent of disclosure, and “[a]s these lingering questions demonstrate, . . . is likely to generate endless litigation over arbitrations that were intended to finally resolve disputes outside the court system.”

In addition to her view that the Monster Energy attorneys fees arbitration award should be upheld, Friedland looked extensively at the repeat-player issue regarding the relationship between JAMS and Monster Energy.  She noted

Owners of JAMS have an interest in maximizing JAMS’s amount of business, because they share in JAMS’s profits. Likewise, non-owner arbitrators have an interest in advancing their professional careers and maintaining their status with JAMS, which creates similar incentives to decide cases in a way that is acceptable to repeat player customers—otherwise, JAMS might terminate the nonowner’s JAMS affiliation.

In her dissent’s final paragraph, Friedland took a dim view of arbitration:

To the extent that the private arbitration system favors repeat players, I think it is unfortunate that so many parties forgo the protections of Article III and turn to arbitration instead. It is especially unfortunate when arbitrations involve a non-repeat player party that had no choice but to agree to arbitration in order to acquire employment, purchase a product, or obtain a necessary service. The majority laudably seeks to mitigate disparities between repeat players and one-shot players in the arbitration system. But I disagree that requiring disclosures about the elephant that everyone knows is in the room will address those disparities. It will only cause many arbitrations to be redone, and endless litigation over how many repeated arbitrations there will be.

 

The author, a 2L at St. John’s University School of Law in Jamaica, N.Y., is a CPR Institute Fall 2019 intern.

JAMS Disputes NJ’s Classification of its Operations as the Practice of Law

By Elena Gurevich

Earlier this month the New Jersey Supreme Court granted a cert petition request by JAMS, the nation’s largest private alternative dispute resolution provider, giving the organization a chance to argue that the retired lawyers and judges who serve on its neutrals’ panels are not practicing law, and therefore do not have to comply with all the state’s requirements for doing so.

In August 2016, JAMS filed a request for an advisory opinion from three New Jersey Supreme Court committees as to whether it could open an office to provide neutral services “without the requirements of a law office practice.”

Having reviewed the committee and Court opinions that guide New Jersey law practice, JAMS concluded that so long as its ADR office is “maintained as a business which does not offer or advertise traditional legal services where there is an attorney-client relationship, this business may be independently maintained, even though staffed by retired judges and lawyers who act as Neutrals in providing ADR services such as mediation, arbitration and the like and are held out to the public using the designation retired judge or ‘Esq.’ for lawyer neutrals.”

JAMS is a nearly 40-year-old Irvine, Calif.-based firm that focuses on mediating and arbitrating complex business and commercial cases via its panel of neutrals. See www.jamsadr.com. The ADR provider has offices in 14 states, the District of Columbia, and in London and Toronto.

JAMS agreed that its New Jersey lawyer-neutrals are subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers, but argued that the New Jersey requirements for a traditional law practice “are not necessary for the provision of neutral services in the state.”

On May 1, 2017, three New Jersey Supreme Court advisory committees—the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law and the Committee on Attorney Advertising—responded to JAMS’ request with a joint advisory letter decision that says that the state’s ethics rules apply to the provider.

The consequences of the determination are that JAMS would need to open a bona fide office in the state, and maintain a trust account.

Predominantly relying upon ACPE Opinion 676/CAA Opinion 18 (April 1994)(available at http://bit.ly/2hRLF7E), the joint committee decision advised that, because the lawyers and retired judges at JAMS work as third-party neutrals, they are engaged in the practice of law and as such must “comply with the rules governing lawyers in private practice.”

On June 30, JAMS filed a petition to New Jersey Supreme Court seeking review of the joint decision. JAMS asserted that as a provider of “non-traditional legal services” it does not establish any attorney-client relationship.

The state’s top Court granted the petition on Oct. 4.

In the petition, JAMS cited a University of Baltimore law review article asserting that mediation “is not the practice of law because it is not illegal for non-lawyers to be mediators.” Robert Rubinson, “The New Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct and Mediation: Perplexing Questions Answered and

Perplexing Questions That Remain,” University of Baltimore Law Forum Vol. 36: No. 1, Article 2 at 12 (available at http://bit.ly/2yEf8fk).

The article also emphasizes the definition of mediation that involves mediators “who, without providing legal advice, assist the parties in reaching their own voluntary agreement.” That, according to the article, signified the fact that under Maryland law mediators are not practicing law.

In its joint answer brief prepared by the state attorney general’s office and filed Aug. 30, the Supreme Court committees reject the argument. saying that the Maryland law “carries no weight in New Jersey” since the jurisdiction uses a different analysis when it tries to determine if someone has engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. It explains that New Jersey “first decides whether an activity constitutes the practice of law; it then considers whether, if non-lawyers engage in that activity, it is in the public interest to permit them to continue.”

The joint answer also notes that the attorney-client relationship was “immaterial to the issue.” Instead, it focuses on the public interest and regulation of neutral services, saying it was “germane to the Committees ‘ analysis.”

According to the joint answer, the Court committees “sufficiently addressed” the public interest concerns in their decision, pointing out that JAMS’ “expressly markets its neutrals’ legal experience and skill through their roles as lawyers and retired judges.” The committees expressed their concern that JAMS’ prospective customers “are entitled to rely on that experience and those designations in their selection of a neutral, calling for proper regulation of “these individuals.”

JAMS filed a Sept. 18 reply brief arguing that “[p]ermission for N.J. admitted lawyers and retired judges to conduct a neutral practice under the JAMS umbrella does not diminish regulatory oversight or the public interest.”

JAMS asserted that it mentioned the Maryland law review article simply to “illustrate the shift by other courts throughout the nation towards acceptance of the provision of neutral services as not being tantamount to the practice of law.  . . .”

JAMS also underscored that it did not “seek to redefine how ADR practice in New Jersey fits into law,” asking the court to recognize that practice has evolved immensely over the past 20 years since Joint Opinion 676, discussed above, was issued.

The ADR provider drew the court’s attention to the dichotomy Joint Opinion 676 presented. According to the reply brief, “an ADR neutral’s practice is a part of law practice,” but the joint opinion simultaneously recognizes that non-admitted lawyers and other professionals also may practice in the field. JAMS opined, “It would be helpful and in the public interest for the court to address this dichotomy.”

JAMS expects to file a supplemental brief on or before Nov. 13, according to its attorney, Robert Margulies, of Jersey City, NJ’s Margulies & Wind. The joint committee’s response brief would be due on or before Dec.18.

The Court’s acceptance of the case was first reported in Michael Booth, “Justices Will Hear JAMS Challenge to NJ Ethics Rules,” N.J.L.J. (Oct. 10)(available at http://bit.ly/2hSuMdg).

 

The author, who has just completed her L.L.M. with a focus on IP law at Cardozo School of Law in New York, is a 2017 CPR Institute Fall Intern.