Arbitration, just like litigation, can come with its own risks and frustrations. Once an arbitration award is rendered, the prevailing party will usually file an action or move to compel a circuit court to confirm the arbitrator’s award so that the award is turned into a judgment. However, a party that does not like the arbitrator’s award, will try to move to modify or vacate the award in accordance with Florida’s Arbitration Code (Florida Statutes Chapter 682). Although there are specific statutory grounds in order to move to modify or vacate an arbitrator’s award (and the motion must be filed within a specific window of time – typically, 90 days after delivery of the award), non-prevailing parties will still make an effort to vacate or modify the award with the circuit court within their required time parameters. The bases to modify or vacate an award are different than appellate rights afforded to litigants in court because an arbitration award is not supposed to be vacated or modified if an arbitrator erred as to the law.
The case of Wells v. Castro, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1509a (Fla. 3d DCA 2013), illustrates certain frustrations. Without going into the factual details of the dispute, an arbitrator entered an award in favor of a claimant (party demanding arbitration) against one respondent (party responding to the demand for arbitration) and against the claimant as to another respondent. All of the parties agreed that the arbitrator is vested with the authority to determine the prevailing party for purposes of being entitled to attorneys’ fees. The respondent that prevailed as to the claimant’s claim wanted to be the prevailing party in order to recover its attorneys’ fees. However, the arbitrator found that neither party was the prevailing party meaning neither the respondent nor claimant would be entitled to recover their attorneys’ fees (as to the claimant’s claim against the prevailing respondent). Notably, under the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Trytek v. Gale Indus., Inc., 3 So.3d 1194 (Fla. 2009), a court is to look at which party prevailed on the significant issues in the case for purposes of determining the prevailing party and has discretion to determine that there is not a prevailing party; stated differently, there is now uncertainty as to whether a party will be deemed the prevailing party and be entitled to their attorneys’ fees under the “significant issues” standard.
The respondent that prevailed moved the circuit court to essentially modify the arbitration award arguing that the arbitrator erroneously concluded that neither party was the prevailing party and that the respondent should have been deemed the prevailing party because it prevailed as to the claimant’s claims. The trial court granted the motion and deemed the respondent the prevailing party for purposes of being entitled to attorneys’ fees.
On appeal through a petition for a writ of mandamus (in this case, an appeal for the appellate court to order the trial court to confirm the arbitrator’s award), the Third District reversed the trial court maintaining: (a) the parties agreed to have the arbitrator determine the issue of prevailing party for purposes of attorneys’ fees (and need to live by that determination) and (b) an arbitrator’s error of law is not a basis to vacate or modify an award. Thus, if the arbitrator erred in determining the prevailing party under Florida caselaw, the parties need to live with that determination because they agreed to have the arbitrator determine this issue in their arbitration.
While there are certain benefits to arbitration, it can come with its own risks and frustrations. Again, the reasons to modify or vacate the award are limited under Florida statute and not designed to correct an arbitrator’s potential errors in law. Also, if the parties want the arbitrator to determine the prevailing party for purposes of attorneys’ fees (which makes sense since the arbitrator will be the most familiar with the factual nature of the dispute), the parties will more than likely have to live by that determination.
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