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KERNAHAN AND JUDICIAL HURDLES TO ARBITRATION
                             By Jacqueline A. Muttick, Esq.
New Jersey courts have continued the trend of applying an exacting reading to arbitration provisions, resulting in cases where such provisions have been struck down for failure to state clearly and unambiguously that the parties waive the right to seek relief in court and instead elect arbitration. A recent decision from late last year held an arbitration provision to be unenforceable when it did not set forth a specific arbitration forum (or a process for choosing an arbitration forum), and otherwise did not itemize the rights that replaced the right to proceed in court. Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc., et al., 456 N.J. Super. 613 (App. Div. 2018). Likewise, the Court earlier this year struck down an arbitration provision that it similarly deemed ambiguous when, among other things, the provision itself was not labeled an “arbitration” provision and contained contradictory language that failed to inform the parties of the rights they were waiving. Kernahan v. Home Warranty Administrator of Florida, Inc., __ N.J. __ (2019).
               In Kernahan, the parties entered into a consumer agreement and, after plaintiff consumer filed litigation, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and enforce arbitration pursuant to the agreement. The Court found that the contract failed to inform consumers, including the plaintiff, that they were waiving their right to trial. Specifically, the arbitration provision was found in a section of the agreement labeled “Mediation,” the font size was small making the provision difficult to read, and the provision itself contained contradictory terms including requiring the arbitration to proceed under the AAA’s Commercial Mediation Rules. (Mediation and arbitration are vastly different, with mediation still providing parties with the opportunity to litigate while arbitration is a process that results in a final disposition.) The Plain Language Act, N.J.S.A. 56:12-1 to -13, requires consumer contracts be written in such a manner as to be understandable by a lay person, and the case law regarding arbitration provisions applies this standard as well. Since the provision in the Kernahan agreement failed to meet these requirement, there was no mutual assent to arbitration and the provision was deemed unenforceable. The Court again reaffirmed the position that “an arbitration agreement is clearly enforceable when its terms affirmatively state, or unambiguously convey to a consumer in a way that he or she would understand, that there is a distinction between agreeing to resolve a dispute in arbitration and agreeing to resolve that dispute in a judicial forum.” Id. slip op. at 24 (citing Atalese v. U.S. Legal Services Group, L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 442-444 (2014)).
            The Kernahan decision is significant for its discussion of Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. Partnership v. Clark, 137 S. Ct. 1421 (2017). In Kindred Nursing, the United States Supreme Court reviewed a Kentucky case requiring a power of attorney agreement to explicitly state that the agent (the attorney-in-fact) held the authority to waive the principal’s right to a jury trial. The Supreme Court held that such a requirement contravened the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1 to 16, by holding arbitration agreements to a more exacting standard than other agreements, and by adding an additional barrier to the enforcement of arbitration agreements.  The Court in Kernahan was not asked to review whether Atalese and other New Jersey cases violated Kindred Nursing. Nevertheless the Court did note that such an analysis would not be required for Kernahan because the threshold issue of whether the arbitration provision was clear was easily answered, as the provision did not contain the clarity required for mutual assent. In his concurring opinion, Justice Albin directly addressed this issue and found that Atalese did not conflict with Kindred Nursing, as New Jersey's case law does not disfavor arbitration agreements, but instead only requires the same mutual assent for enforcement that is required of all contracts.
While the majority opinion avoided directly opining on whether Atalese and its progeny runs afoul of Kindred Nursing, it appears from Kernahan that the Court is poised to uphold current New Jersey case law. Given the Court’s ruling in Kernahan, it is anticipated that New Jersey courts will continue their reading of consumer arbitration provisions, which currently favors jury trial in the event there is any ambiguity regarding the mutual assent to arbitrate. At the moment, the Court requires an explicit waiver of jury trial (see, e.g, Atalese), selection of the specific arbitration forum, itemization of the rights replacing the right to proceed in court (see Flanzman), and observance of the Plain Language Act, including clarity in contract terms and headings.
                                                                              -JAM 6/18/19


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Arbitrating Indemnity Issues During the Pendency of a Supreme Court Action, by Arthur Xanthos

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Our last article warned of a pitfall with the traditional arbitration clause - ‎an arbitrator may end up with a power (e.g., the power to award punitive damages) that was never intended by the parties. Here we highlight another arbitration issue that has arisen several times in our practice.

Assume an Owner (O) hires a General Contractor (GC) to do work on a construction site, and the standard AIA form contract is executed containing a mandatory arbitration clause providing that "all disputes between the parties arising out of this agreement shall be resolved by binding arbitration under then applicable commercial arbitration rules". Plaintiff-worker (P) trips and falls while working on the site and sues both O and GC, alleging ‎negligence, as well as violations of the New York State Labor Law (the "Lawsuit"). O and GC each answer the Lawsuit and assert cross-claims against each other for contribution, defense, and indemnification.

All of the above is standard fare and occurs almost reflexively. But then something unusual happens: O's counsel files an arbitration demand, demanding that ‎GC arbitrate the issue of whether GC owes O defense and indemnification in the Lawsuit (the "Arbitration"). Inter-defendant arbitration of an indemnity obligation in the context of a pending personal injury lawsuit is an unusual tactic, and raises a host of procedural problems. For example, what happens to the rest of the case as the arbitration proceeds? What if the arbitration requires the resolution of other issues that have not yet been decided by the court? What if the arbitration takes the case beyond “standards and goals”? New York courts have come up with methods of dealing with the procedural problems. See, e.g., Weiss v Nath, 97 A.D.3d 661, 664 (2d Dep't 2012); County Glass & Metal Installers, Inc. v. Pavarini McGovern, LLC, 65 A.D.3d 940, 940-941 (1st Dep't 2009); and 624 Art Holdings, LLC v. Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6440, 26-27 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. June 7, 2012). But even assuming counsel is willing to navigate the attendant procedural problems, in our opinion inter-defendant Arbitration of part of a Supreme Court action can only be justified in one of two circumstances:

1. Where a quicker resolution of the indemnity issue would occur in the Arbitration as opposed to the Lawsuit, and that speed is worth the arbitration fees; and/or
2. Where a more favorable resolution of the indemnity issue would occur in the Arbitration as opposed to the Lawsuit.

It is likely that New York counsel always will conclude that a quicker resolution would occur in the Arbitration. Counsel could also conclude that a more favorable resolution would occur in the Arbitration under the following scenarios:

1. If the rules applicable to the Arbitration (but not applicable to the Lawsuit) generate a better result -- of course then Arbitration would be advisable. But to make this decision counsel must retrieve the applicable Arbitration rules, review them for application to the indemnity issue, and compare the result with that obtained via the Lawsuit.
2. If the particular arbitrator used comes from a construction background and therefore knows or “feels” that such indemnity obligations should regularly be enforced -- here too Arbitration would be advisable.

So the conclusions are these: If the Arbitration would yield a more favorable result, choose inter-defendant arbitration regardless of the fees for arbitration. If the arbitration would yield a quicker result, and a result no worse than that yielded in Supreme Court, choose to arbitrate if you are willing to pay the cost to arbitrate in exchange for a speedier decision. In all other cases, bide your time and wait for the assigned Justice to make the decision on summary judgment.

APX 10/8/14
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Binding Arbitration: A New Timebomb for Lawyer and Client, by Arthur Xanthos

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It is customary to recommend to a range of clients that they agree to binding arbitration as a mechanism to resolve future disputes under an agreement. Arbitration is often regarded as a cheaper, quicker alternative to litigation.  The typical arbitration clause reads as follows: "Any dispute arising under this agreement shall be resolved by arbitration before the American Arbitration Association in New York City under the commercial arbitration rules then in effect." It is just as customary in the same agreement to choose a particular State law, e.g., New York law, to govern the resolution of future disputes.  A simple version of this choice of law clause reads as follows: "This agreement shall be governed by the laws of the State of New York."

Yesterday, the New York State Appellate Division, First Department, had the opportunity to consider a case involving an agreement containing both clauses.  A limited liability company's operating agreement contained both an arbitration clause and a choice of law (New York) clause. But the commercial arbitration rules (mandated by the arbitration clause) conflicted with New York State law (mandated by the choice of law clause) in one important respect: commercial arbitration rules permit an arbitrator under some circumstances to assess punitive damages against a party to the arbitration.  New York State law, on the other hand, does not permit an arbitrator to assess punitive damages.  So when an agreement contains both clauses (commercial arbitration rules, and New York State choice of law), may an arbitrator award punitive damages?

Yes, said the Appellate Division in a sharply divided 3-2 decision. Matter of Flintlock Constr. Servs. LLC v. Weiss, 2014 NY Slip Op 05818 (8/14/2014).  The majority held that the operating agreement's choice of law provision, in the absence of additional limiting language, "is insufficient to remove the issue of punitive damages from the arbitrator".

The Flintlock decision is problematic for two reasons: First, what do contracting parties do about their already executed agreements that now have conflicting clauses? It is barely overstatement to say that the overwhelming majority of shareholder agreements, operating agreements, asset sale agreements, and even employment agreements contain both of these clauses.  Second, how should such agreements be drafted going forward?  Pending an appeal of the Flintlock decision, attorneys should follow the First Department's direction and place limits on the arbitrator's power to impose punitive damages.  The new clauses might read as follows:

              "ARBITRATION. Any dispute arising under this agreement shall be resolved by arbitration before the [NAME OF ARBITRATION TRIBUNAL] in [LOCATION].  The arbitration shall be conducted under commercial arbitration rules then in effect, but the arbitrator(s) shall resolve the dispute in accordance with the laws of the State of New York without giving effect to principles of conflict of laws. The arbitrator(s) shall have the limitations on his, her and their power and authority as are found in New York State law, including without limitation no power or authority to award or assess punitive damages."

                "CHOICE OF LAW. This agreement, its validity, construction, and enforcement, shall be governed by the laws of the State of New York, without giving effect to principles of conflict of laws."

                                                                                            APX 8/15/14 



     

  
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