Federal Judicial Review of Arbitration Decisions

I’m pretty sure that Judge Bea didn’t intend to give me a chuckle in the first paragraph of his opinion in Collins v. D. R. Horton, Inc., case no. 05-15737 (9th Cir. Sept. 24, 2007). But he did.

Appellants contend their motion [for summary judgment] should have been granted because the arbitrators manifestly disregarded the law when deciding not to apply offensive non-mutual collateral estoppel because judicial review of an arbitration award under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) is more limited than judicial review of a district court judgment. We hold the arbitrators did not manifestly disregard the law because no “well defined, explicit, and clearly applicable” law existed to be disregarded. [Citation.] Accordingly, we affirm.

(Footnote omitted.) At the very mention of the term “offensive non-mutual collateral estoppel,” I couldn’t help but think of the characters ordering coffee in rapid-fire succession in the movie L.A. Story:

Tom: I’ll have a decaf coffee.
Trudi: I’ll have a decaf espresso.
Morris Frost: I’ll have a double decaf cappuccino.
Ted: Give me decaffeinated coffee ice cream.
Harris: I’ll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.

Thus, I found it amusing that this tangle of words — “offensive non-mutual collateral estoppel” — would have no “well defined, explicit, and clearly applicable” in the context of this case. But maybe that’s just me.

On the merits, this decision is useful for its exposition on what constitutes an arbitrator’s “manifest disregard for the law” sufficient to justify vacating an arbitration award. For such “manifest disregard” to exist, mere error is insufficient; the arbitrator(s) must have understood and correctly stated the law but ignored it. A proper identification and statement of the law requires, in turn, that it be “well defined, explicit and clearly applicable.” Here, since there was no well-settled law on the issue of whether the arbitrator(s) were bound to apply collateral estopppel on the facts before it, they cannot be said to have ignored it.