Dispute Resolution Alternative: What is Arbitration?
Arbitration, like mediation and adjudication, is a form of alternative dispute resolution and is typically favored in lieu of litigation. Generally, in arbitration an impartial third party listens to each side of the dispute and makes a decision resolving the dispute.
It’s important not to confuse arbitration with mediation, which, admittedly, I initially did. The American Bar Association notes “Arbitration is different from mediation because the neutral arbitrator has the authority to make a decision about the dispute.” In mediation, the third party is present to facilitate the conversation, rather than offer resolution.
The American Arbitration Association explains arbitration as “A private, informal process by which all parties agree, in writing, to submit their disputes to one or more impartial persons authorized to resolve the controversy by rendering a final and binding award.”
In most contracts, construction & otherwise, you will find an arbitration clause. On its website, American Arbitration Association provides visitors with the following standard construction arbitration clause.
“Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this contract, or the breach thereof, shall be settled by arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association under its Construction Industry Arbitration Rules, and judgment on the award rendered by the arbitrator(s) may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof.”
Clause is Present, Suit Dispute
Despite the presence of an arbitration clause within a contract, one or more parties involved in a dispute may file a lawsuit. Once a lawsuit has been filed, someone may file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, based on the arbitration clause within the contract. However, according to a recent article by Robert Cox of Williams Mullen, once the court is involved, it’s up to a judge to determine whether the dispute should be arbitrated by the court or by an arbitrator.
“A court resolving an arbitrability dispute must engage in a two-step inquiry… First, the court must determine who decides whether a particular dispute is arbitrable – an arbitrator or the court. Second, if the court determines that it is the proper forum to adjudicate the arbitrability of the dispute, then the court must decide whether the dispute is in fact arbitrable.”
Cox goes on to say a dispute is suited for the courts unless the language within the contract “clearly and unmistakably provides that the arbitrator shall determine what disputes the parties agreed to arbitrate.” Further, according to Cox, courts have frequently determined “… that incorporation of the American Arbitration Association’s (AAA) arbitration rules constitutes clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability.”
When Arbitration Won’t Be Arbitrated, Arbitrarily
There may be circumstances when a judge will determine an arbitrator should not preside over a dispute. According to Cox, several U.S. Courts of Appeals have used a test called “wholly groundless” to determine whether arbitration is appropriate. What is “wholly groundless”? Essentially, if the claim is frivolous or deemed unlawful.
There are many benefits to arbitration. Arbitration may be a faster and less expensive process than formal litigation; plus, in binding decisions, an arbitrator’s decision will be upheld by courts.
I admit, the arbitration clauses are a bit foreign to me, but I found The AAA Guide to Drafting Alternative Dispute Resolution Clauses for Construction Contracts, published by American Arbitration Association to be quite insightful. It appears American Arbitration Association maintains an industry standard for arbitration clauses, though as a best practice you should seek legal guidance when drafting and/or signing an agreement.