Arbitration – essentially, a private trial in which the parties hire a fact-finder who serves in lieu of a judge – has become an increasingly common means of resolving family law disputes. Although an arbitration may be conducted with all the formalities of a trial, usually parties can agree to dispense with certain formalities, some of which can be costly for the parties. Arbitration takes a trial out of the sometimes messy court system, usually guarantees a decision will be made in a timely manner, and ensures that the trial does not become a matter of public record. In family law matters where the issues can be sensitive and the testimony potentially embarrassing to the parties, this may be preferred by the parties.
Another advantage to arbitration is that the litigants are not beholden to the deadlines of the Court system. They can move on with their lives and even get divorced, while agreeing to defer certain issues to arbitration on a more relaxed timelines. But sometimes this can backfire.
In a recent unpublished (non-precedential) decision, Shah v. Shah, the Appellate Division addressed the question: “What happens to an agreement to arbitrate when nobody arbitrates?”
The answer given by the Appellate Division is an interesting one, especially in light of the facts of the Shah case. In a nutshell, here they are:
- The Shahs entered into an agreement resolving at least some of their issues in January 2003. As to those issues that were not resolved (and there were a whopping seventeen of them), they agreed that they would proceed to arbitration. They agreed on an arbitrator, paid his retainer, and set a date for arbitration. However, the arbitration did not go forward and after several years passed, Arbitrator # 1 returned the retainer.
- In 2008, the parties mutually agreed upon a new arbitrator, Arbitrator # 2. However, neither of them took any steps to retain him.
- In 2009, Mr. Shah filed a motion to compel the arbitration, expand the scope of the arbitration beyond the seventeen issues identified in the parties’ agreement, and appoint a new arbitrator. The Court granted Mr. Shah’s motion and appointed Arbitrator # 3. The Court also entered a discovery schedule, and entered an order directing the parties as to the manner in which Arbitrator # 3’s retainer would be paid. Despite Mrs. Shah’s apparent attempts to move forward with Arbitrator # 3, Mr. Shah did nothing. Eventually, Arbitrator # 3 wrote to the Court to, understandably, advise that he would not arbitrate until his retainer agreement was signed. Neither party signed it.
- In 2015 (now twelve years after the parties agreed to arbitrate), Mr. Shah once again asked the Court to compel the arbitration, this time asking that Arbitrator # 2 be appointed. Mrs. Shah cross-moved. Among other things, she asked the Court to terminate the parties’ obligation to arbitrate. The Court granted Mrs. Shah’s request, reasoning that – twelve years later – the parties were in very different financial circumstances and could not be made to arbitrate at this point. The Court also opined that the parties had waived their rights to arbitrate.
- Mr. Shah moved for reconsideration of the Court’s Order, which the Court denied.
That brings us to Mr. Shah’s appeal. In pertinent part, Mr. Shah argued that the decision of the lower court should be reversed because the judge incorrectly concluded that the parties had waived their rights to arbitrate due, essentially, to the passage of time.
The Appellate Division agreed with the judge below and concluded that the parties had waived their rights to arbitrate. This is an interesting conclusion in light of the definition of a waiver:
Waiver is the voluntary and intentional relinquishment of a known right. The intent to waive need not be stated expressly, provided the circumstances clearly show that the party knew of the right and then abandoned it, either by design or indifference. [internal citations omitted].
Indeed, under the facts of the Shah case, there was no question that the parties had unduly delayed in proceeding to arbitration. Mr. Shah apparently admitted to the Court that he was unhappy with Arbitrator # 3’s fee and therefore did nothing to move forward with the court-appointed arbitrator he had asked for in the first place.
At the same time, there were efforts over the years to move forward with the arbitration. The major consideration the Appellate Division seems to have made was the amount of time that had passed, regardless of the fact that the parties had – at various points over that time period – made efforts to move forward with the arbitration. One can imagine that this could be a closer call under even a slightly different set of facts. For example, what if the facts were identical, but had occurred over the course of five years instead of twelve?
What is clear is that at some point, if parties do not arbitrate then the right to do so is waived, even if the parties have an agreement in place to proceed to arbitration, and one of them wants to enforce it.