Divorce Mediation Blog

Good News and Bad News: Arbitration Just Became a Little Bit More Final

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Katz, Nannis & Solomon, PC v. Levine

Late last year, we anticipated the decision in this case, and expressed the hope that the SJC would rule that parties may contract for levels of review of arbitration awards that are broader than those expressed in M.G.L., ch. 251, the Massachusetts version of the Uniform Arbitration Act (UAA). We felt, and still believe, that many family law counsel and clients shy away from this private, efficient and effective private dispute resolution methodology, for fear of giving up traditional litigation rights of appeal for errors of law and abuse of discretion. Well, the SJC didn't it.

In Katz, Nannis & Solomon, P.C. v. Levine, an accounting firm partner, Bruce Levine (no relation) was purged from his firm for reasons that the other parties characterized as "for cause"; and such a termination was, under the firm agreement, deemed to be "involuntary", and therefore subject to forfeiture of both share redemption payments and deferred compensation benefits. Also, the partners alleged that Mr. Levine's conduct ran afoul of the non-compete provisions of the agreement, demanding damages. All matters were subject to mandatory binding arbitration, but accompanied by contractual rights of court review that exceeded those of the UAA, if short of full appellate rights.

When Mr. Levine suffered an adverse arbitration award, he pressed the agreed form of review, which his ex-partners challenged, on the basis that the UAA precludes the right to contractual rights of review. The trial judge sustained the challenge, ruling that UAA review provisions are exclusive and preclusive of any additionally negotiated review rights; and Mr. Levine appealed. The SJC took the case on direct appellate review.

The adverse award ripened into a full-fledged disaster for Mr. Levine (nearly $1.75 million plus interest) when the SJC ruled that the UAA trumps contractual efforts to deviate from its extremely narrow grounds of review, as a matter of law. Mr. Levine complained in his reply brief that the expanded right of review was an essential element of the agreement to arbitrate, and its deletion would nullify the entire arbitration clause, thus rendering the award void. The SJC dispatched the claim as too little, too late, since Mr. Levine had not raised the issue either in the court below, or even in his brief-in-chief: harsh result, perhaps, but not a particularly surprising one, on the appellate record described.

While the decision seems consistent with underlying law, and the UAA policy that arbitration awards should be quite nearly final when issued (hence, the good news) we regret the outcome in the family law context (hence, the bad news). As divorce mediators and arbitrators, we are all about expanding people's rights, and not narrowing them. If constricted review discourages an otherwise useful and efficient process for parties engaged in domestic relations agony, why shouldn't they be able to devise their own intermediate rights of review, if it will make both parties more amenable, potentially saving the parties years of costly and frustrating litigation of cases.

Since the SJC decision is one of statutory construction, and not constitutionally based, our legislature could, of course, adopt broader review rights for family law cases exclusively, as has occurred elsewhere. One day, perhaps…

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