In 2015, I wrote a post on this blog with the same title because seemingly, this issue has been resolved for some time. All too often, parties would agree to mediate their disputes but would try to reserve a right to appeal, as of right, to the Appellate Division, as if the matter was tried by the family court. Since the Hogoboom case in 2007, lawyers have should have known that this was a no-no. In fact, in Hogoboom, the Appellate Division specifically held that:
“…Basically, arbitration awards may be vacated only for fraud, corruption, or similar wrongdoing on the part of the arbitrators. [They] can be corrected or modified only for very specifically defined mistakes as set forth in [N.J.S.A. 2A:24-9]. If the arbitrators decide a matter not even submitted to them, that matter can be excluded from the award. For those who think the parties are entitled to a greater share of justice, and that such justice exists only in the care of the court, I would hold that the parties are free to expand the scope of judicial review by providing for such expansion in their contract; that they may, for example, specifically provide that the arbitrators shall render their decision only in conformance with New Jersey law, and that such awards may be reversed either for mere errors of New Jersey law, substantial errors, or gross errors of New Jersey law and define therein what they mean by that.” … Here, the parties afforded themselves an expanded scope of review, as they were, by contract and by statute, permitted to do. The parties were not, however, entitled to create an avenue of direct appeal to this court. .. It is settled that consent of the parties does not create appellate jurisdiction. … In our judgment, the parties must seek initial review of these awards in the trial court. The trial court is charged with employing the standard of review the parties contractually agreed upon in determining whether these awards, or either of them, should be vacated or modified. …
That seems clear enough, yet today, there was a reported (precedential) decision in Curran v. Curran that addressed this issue again. In Curran, the parties agreed to arbitrate and entered into arbitration agreement which contained the very limited right to vacate an arbitration award per the New Jersey Arbitration Act. However, the wife’s attorney wrote in the following sentence, “The parties reserve their rights to appeal the arbitrator’s award to the appellate division as if the matter was determined by the trial court.” I guess they forgot about Hogoboom. If that was not bad enough, the parties signed the arbitrator’s retainer acknowledging that they were bound by the decision, except for the limited reasons under the act, and further, that they gave up their right of appeal.
After the arbitration, the husband filed a motion in court to vacate the award. In refusing to vacate the award, the trial judge found the hand written addition preserving the right to appeal was unenforceable stating:
… that there was no provision under the Act to permit a direct appeal from an arbitrator’s decision to the Appellate Division. In addressing paragraph 3A, the judge stated: “The parties are not permitted to create subject matter jurisdiction by agreement which I think they tried to do here. The authority of a court to hear and determine certain classes of cases rests solely with the Constitution and the Legislature.” He concluded that paragraph 3A was unenforceable.
The trial judge did give a greater analysis of the matter than just permitted under the Act finding that that is what the parties had bargained for, and acted as “an Appellate Division of the arbitrator” The Husband appealed asserting for the first time that the hand written addition preserving the right to appeal was illegal and voided the entire arbitration agreement and subsequent proceedings.
The Appellate Division disagreed and held that the unenforceable provision could be severed from the agreement. The court held:
The primary purpose of the agreement was the resolution of the issues incident to the parties’ divorce through binding arbitration pursuant to the Act. This is evident from the contractual language stating: “The Parties having determined
that such issues be referred to binding Arbitration pursuant to the New Jersey Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 et. seq. . . . The parties shall attend binding Arbitration pursuant to the New Jersey Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 et. seq.” The parties attached an inclusive list to the agreement of all of the issues they intended the arbitrator to consider and resolve. The purpose of the agreement was for a final resolution of those issues. The arbitration agreement noted in multiple provisions that it was binding and not appealable, other than the limited grounds specified under the Act to modify or vacate an award.
Paragraph 3A did not defeat the parties’ intent to have their matrimonial litigation determined and considered by an arbitrator in an expeditious and comprehensive manner. After reviewing the parties’ submissions, the arbitrator rendered a preliminary award. Oral argument was heard on Robert’s application for reconsideration of the award. The arbitrator subsequently issued comprehensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, and a detailed final award. …
Severance of paragraph 3A does not defeat the primary purpose of the agreement. To the contrary, a revocation of the final award would only serve to frustrate the parties’ intent of reaching a final resolution to their matrimonial litigation and defeat the purpose of the arbitration agreement. The agreement is valid and enforceable.
As I noted in 2015, you can arbitrate and preserve a right of appeal. Just like you can agree to arbitrate the initial determination of the issues, you can also agree to an appellate arbitration, as well. I have had matters where our initial arbitration agreement called for the use of a panel of two retired appellate division judges (didn’t have to be – could have been anyone we agreed to be the appellate arbitrators), who would then decide the matter as if they were sitting as a regular appellate panel. While in that case, you essentially lose the chance to appeal to the Supreme Court, you still have a body to review the matter if you think that the arbitrator got it wrong in the first case. The take away, however, is that your arbitration agreement must clearly spell out the scope of review and who will review the matter – taking into consideration what the court system can and cannot do with regard to an arbitration award.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.