February, 2010

...now browsing by month


Problems with arbitration – PART 2

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Last week I wrote Part 1 of this blog on the problems I have encountered with arbitration. Please see that post if you have not read it. What follows is Part 2 of the reasons that I advise my franchise and business clients why they should be wary of automatically including an arbitration clause in any franchise agreement or other contract that they execute:

4. Judges are generally more experienced, more versed in the law, and otherwise more qualified to hear disputes than most arbitrators. While not every judge is equally qualified, most judges have been vetted by their local and state bar organizations, and either elected by voters or appointed by politicians. Judges have a track record that can be reviewed and relied on. Judges in most courts serve on a rotational basis, hearing different types of cases and thereby gaining differing experiences. Judges have resources like law clerks to research the law for them. So while judges may lack technical expertise in a certain area, they make up for that my relying heavily on the attorneys and evidence presented in a given matter. Whatsmore, judges must construe existing law to base their rulings on, or else risk being overturned on appeal. Arbitrators, on the other hand, are in most cases practicing or retired attorneys with a specific area of expertise who have asked to be appointed to serve. Many times, an arbitrator will have only a peripheral knowledge of the subject of the arbitration, yet without the experience, knowledge of the law, or resources to ensure that his or her ruling is correct on the law. This set of circumstances can often times lead to inconsistent or downright baseless arbitrator’s decisions.

5. Judges produce formal opinions reciting the law relied on and applying the law to the facts to reach a decision. Many arbitrators, meanwhile, can issue awards without including their specific legal reasoning for an award. For purposes of appeal, judges are required to produce formal opinions citing the issues, facts, law and conclusion in an orderly fashion. This allows parties to focus many times on a distinct area for appeal, and allows appeals courts to easily review the court’s basis for a decision. Conversely, many arbitrators are required to issue only a narrowly written award unless otherwise agreed to by the parties. Even then, an arbitrator issuing a “reasoned award” may not satisfactorily explain the evidence relied on, the law used and how the arbitrator’s conclusion was arrived at. This not only makes it difficult for the parties to decipher how a particular arbitration award was arrived at, but more importantly, makes the record for appeal nearly impossible.

6. Even if an arbitrator issues a reasoned award, the right to appeal an arbitration award is extremely narrow when compared to a party’s ability to appeal a court ruling. In most instances, losers at trial have the right to appeal the merits of a court’s decision to a higher court “de novo”, using almost any substantive or procedural issue available to them. The basis of an appeal of an arbitration award however is severely limited, and many times requires the appealing party to clear such high hurdles as proving fraud, corruption of the arbitrator, or the arbitrator exceeding his or her powers. The difficulty of appeal, when combined with the erratic decisions of some arbitrators, is another reason to forego arbitration in favor of litigation, except in a specific set of circumstances discussed with and approved by my client.

Current Problems with Arbitration Clauses in Franchise and Other Agreements – PART 1

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

I frequently tell my franchise and business clients to be wary of automatically including an arbitration clause in a franchise agreement or other contract they execute. Several years ago it was savvy for a business owner or franchisor to include mandatory arbitration in their agreements. Now, many of the reasons that supported the inclusion of arbitration clauses have been diminished, making the inclusion of mandatory arbitration in many contracts a questionable strategy at best. I now advise my business and franchise clients against arbitrating disputes for the following reasons:

1. Arbitrations are not “cost-savers” like they used to be thanks to the multiple fees associated with the process. Unlike judges, arbitrators are paid by the parties on an hourly basis. It is therefore in an arbitrator’s financial interest for the case to reach a hearing, regardless of the claim’s merits. In addition, many hearings go on much longer than necessary, allowing witnesses and testimony with questionable relevance to be heard. As a result, arbitrator’s fees can be quite significant for even routine business disputes. The arbitrator’s fees are of course in addition to the fees that business clients pay to their own attorneys for handling the matter, plus the hefty filing fees that many arbitration forums charge as well. For example, the American Arbitration Association, the preeminent arbitration forum in the U.S., charges filing fees ranging from $300 to $2,500.00 for commercial arbitration disputes. Contrast these expenses with trials and other court hearings, where judges have no financial interest in prolonging a case, and filing fees are minimal.

2. The distribution of who pays the arbitrator’s and other fees can disfavor the party bringing the action. The filing party, known as the Claimant, will be responsible for paying not only the arbitration filing fees, but also its portion AND the other party’s portion of the arbitrator’s fees mentioned above should the defending party, called the Respondent, refuse to pay its share of such fees. In such a case, the Claimant must pay all fees in order for the matter to go on, yet the Respondent remains entitled to participate in the arbitration process. If the Claimant fails to pay all of the fees owed to the arbitrator, the arbitrator will likely suspend or dismiss the action entirely. Because there is no incentive for a Respondent to pay its share of an arbitrator’s compensation or other fees, the absurd ersult of the Claimant paying all fees happens more than one would think. Combined with the fees a Claimant must pay to its own attorney, it is easy to see why a business owner would question the use of arbitration in the first place.

3. Arbitrators have far more discretion to rule than judges, sometimes in spite of the evidence presented. The arbitration process is much less formal than a trial. While some informality saves the parties time and expense and speeds up the process, the biggest informality can alter the entire outcome, namely, the fact that the rules of evidence do not apply to arbitration. As a result, arbitrators are free to allow documents and testimony that is questionable as to veracity and authenticity into evidence, even though such evidence would not be permitted in a court of law. In plain terms, an arbitration hearing can literally turn into a free for all, with the arbitrator allowing all kinds of testimony and documents to be factored into an award. This sort of setting can severely hurt a business client who is relying strictly on the language of documents and the actions of the parties, while in turn favoring a party hoping for chaos, basing its case on hearsay and unsupported and unreliable accusations. [Tune in to PART 2 next week]

Remember to Update your Will and Estate Planning Documents

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Individuals and couples often times forget that Wills and other estate planning documents are ongoing, vibrant documents that need to be updated as personal circumstances change. I emphasize to clients that they should review their estate planning documents periodically to determine if changes need to be made. Examples of personal circumstances that clients must keep in mind for estate planning purposes include, among other things, marriage and divorce, birth of children, death of a beneficiary or other loved one, starting and selling a business, the purchase or sale of significant assets like stock and real estate, and any other significant increase or decrease in the size of one’s estate.

For instance, if the person you designate in your Will as your Personal Representative dies or is no longer in position to act on your behalf, your failure to name a successor P.R. could allow someone who you did not intend act as your P.R. This circumstance also applies to the person you name as the Guardian of your minor children, any Trustee of a Trust you form, as well as other estate planning documents like the attorney-in-fact named in your Power of Attorney and the Health Care Agent named in your Advance Medical Directive.

Also be aware that if you sell stock or real estate that you specifically left in your Will to a beneficiary and then fail to change your Will to replace that gift, the beneficiary will end up with nothing, as the proceeds from such a sale will go into your residuary estate and be distributed accordingly.

My message is that you should remember to update your estate planning documents when significant life events occur. As a best practice, I recommend that my clients review their estate plan every two years in order to prevent an error which could prove extremely costly to those the clients are intending to help in their Estate Plan.