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January 11, 1991


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. William C. Gardner, Trial Judge

Ferren and Schwelb, Associate Judges, and Mack, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb

Celtech, Inc. appeals from an order of the trial court denying its motion to vacate an arbitration award in favor of Broumand, its former sales representative, and granting Broumand's motion to enforce it. The dispute arose out of the termination by Celtech of the Independent Sales Representation Agreement between the parties. Broumand claimed that he had been damaged in the amount of $39,000. Celtech denied liability and asserted that Broumand owed it $9,800 for salary or commissions advanced to Broumand but allegedly not earned. The arbitrator awarded Broumand $15,000 on his claim and Celtech $3,000 on its counterclaim.

Celtech contended in the trial court, and continues to maintain on appeal, that there was "evident partiality" on the part of the arbitrator within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-4311(a)(2)(1989). *fn1 Its only basis for this contention is that the arbitrator did not explain the reason for his award and that the award was contrary to the language of the agreement between the parties and wrong on the facts and the law. The trial Judge held that Celtech had failed to demonstrate evident partiality. We agree.

Where, as here, the parties have agreed to resolve their disputes by arbitration, the judicial role is a limited one. To persuade a court to interfere with an arbitration award, a party must show corruption or "gross mistake;" an error of judgment will not do. Mancuso v. L. Gillarde Co., 61 A.2d 677, 678-79 (D.C. 1948). The applicable principles were articulated by the Supreme Court many years ago in Burchell v. Marsh, 58 U.S. (17 How.) 344, 349, 15 L. Ed. 96 (1854):

Arbitrators are Judges chosen by the parties to decide the matters submitted to them, finally and without appeal. As a mode of settling disputes, it should receive every encouragement from courts of equity. If the award is within the submission, and contains the honest decision of the arbitrators, after a full and fair hearing of the parties, a court of equity will not set it aside for error, either in law or fact. A contrary course would be a substitution of the judgment of the chancellor in place of the Judges chosen by the parties, and would make an award the commencement, not the end, of litigation.

A century later, in Bernhardt v. Polygraphic Co. of America, Inc., 350 U.S. 198, 203, 76 S. Ct. 273, 100 L. Ed. 199 (1956), the Court elaborated as follows:

Arbitrators do not have the benefit of judicial instruction on the law; they need not give their reasons for their result; the record of their proceedings is not as complete as it is in a court trial; and judicial review of an award is more limited than judicial review of a trial. . . . Whether the arbitrators misconstrued a contract is not open to judicial review.

See also Raytheon Co. v. Automated Business Systems, Inc., 882 F.2d 6, 8 (1st Cir. 1989) (arbitrators need not explain their decisions); I. S. Stavborg v. National Metal Converters, Inc., 500 F.2d 424, 432 (2d Cir. 1974) (court will not disturb award even if it is based on an erroneous interpretation of a contract); Andros Compania Maritima, S.A. v. Marc Rich & Co., A.G., 579 F.2d 691, 702-04 (2d Cir. 1978).

In the so-called Steelworkers Trilogy, *fn2 the Supreme Court refined in some measure the principles articulated in its earlier cases. Courts may now inquire, inter alia, whether an arbitrator's decision was arbitrary or capricious. See 6 T. KHEEL, LABOR LAW § 24.05[2] at 24-91 to 24-96 (1989). Nevertheless, the burden on a party seeking to set aside the result of an arbitration proceeding remains a formidable one. An award may be vacated or modified only on grounds clearly specified by statute. Stern v. Stern Co. of Washington, D.C., 91 U.S. App. D.C. 338, 200 F.2d 364 (1952). Celtech's appeal in the present case must therefore stand or fall on its contention that it has demonstrated "evident partiality" on the part of the arbitrator.

"The burden of proving facts which would establish a reasonable impression of partiality rests squarely on the party challenging the award." Sheet Metal Workers Int'l Ass'n, Local Union No. 420 v. Kinney Air Conditioning Co., 756 F.2d 742, 745 (9th Cir. 1985). That party must establish "specific facts which indicate improper motives" on the part of the arbitrator. Id. at 746. As one court has noted, arbitrators are usually knowledgeable individuals in a given field and have interests which overlap with the issues which they are considering as arbitrators. Florasynth, Inc. v. Pickholz, 750 F.2d 171, 173 (Id Cir. 1984). Accordingly, even an appearance of bias that might disqualify a Judge will not disqualify an arbitrator. Id. at 173-74; Sheet Metal Workers, supra, 756 F.2d at 746.

Evident partiality exists where an arbitrator has had close financial relations for many years with a party to the arbitration. Commonwealth Coatings Corp. v. Continental Casualty Co., 393 U.S. 145, 146, 89 S. Ct. 337, 21 L. Ed. 2d 301 (1968) (plurality opinion). The same has been found to be true where the arbitrator was the son of an officer of one of the parties. Morelite Construction Corp. v. New York City District Council Carpenters Benefits Funds, 748 F.2d 79, 84 (2d Cir. 1984); see also Florasynth, supra, 750 F.2d at 174 (dictum). Celtech having made no attempt to show the existence of circumstances of this kind, however, its claim of evident partiality must fail.

In general, "the 'evident partiality or corruption' language of 9 U.S.C. § 10 (b)[ *fn3] is confined to situations where the arbitrator has had dealings or relationships with one of the parties that might cause him to be biased." Reichman v. Creative Real Estate Consultants, Inc., 476 F. Supp. 1276, 1284 (S.D. N.Y. 1979). The courts have repeatedly rejected claims by parties dissatisfied with the results of arbitration proceedings that certain rulings can only be explained by the arbitrators' evident partiality. Lashco, Inc. v. Erickson, 700 F. Supp. 960, 963 (N.D. Ill. 1988); Konkar Maritime Enterprises, S.A. v. Compagnie Belge D'Affretement, 668 F. Supp. 267, 274-75 (S.D. N.Y. 1987). As Judge Sirica concisely put it in Fairchild & Co., Inc. v. Richmond, F. & P.R. Co., 516 F. Supp. 1305, 1313 (D. D.C. 1981), "the mere fact that arbitrators are persuaded by one party's arguments and choose to agree with them is not of itself sufficient to raise a question as to the evident partiality of the arbitrators." See also Arlington Towers Land Corp. v. John McShain, Inc., 150 F. Supp. 904, 927 (D. D.C. 1957) (Tamm, J.) (even where court would have decided issue differently, arbitrator's award will not be set aside in the absence of some affirmative showing of prejudice or bias). To permit "evident partiality" to be inferred from the arbitrator's decision on the merits would undercut the restrictions on judicial review of arbitration proceedings for error of fact or law. *fn4

Courts should seldom, if ever, say never. "[An arbitrator] does not sit to dispense his own brand of industrial Justice," United States Steelworkers v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593, 597, 80 S. Ct. 1358, 4 L. Ed. 2d 1424 (1960). If an arbitrator's words were to manifest infidelity to the law and a deliberate disregard of it, this might conceivably amount to "evident partiality" within the meaning of the statute. See San Martine Compania De Navegacion, S.A. v. Saguenay Terminals, Ltd., 293 F.2d 796, 801 (9th Cir. 1961). But such an inference of bias could be drawn from ...

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