North Carolina Business Litigation Report

Fourth Circuit Affirms $14.9MM Arbitration Award to City of Greensboro

The City of Richmond was kind to the City of Greensboro last week.  After nearly a decade of litigation and arbitration, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's rejection of a challenge to a nearly $15 million arbitration award against the general contractor of a wastewater treatment facility.

The published opinion in MCI Constructors, LLC v. City of Greensboro is the latest round in a dispute arising from a 1996 contract.  That contract delegated to the city manager the role of referee and arbitrator for disputes.  The City terminated MCI for cause, and MCI sought relief from the city manager.  After a hearing in 2002, the city manager ruled that the termination for cause was proper.  At a subsequent hearing in 2003 on the issue of damages, the city manager awarded the City over $13 million.

In 2004, on a challenge by MCI to the arbitration award, the Middle District of North Carolina entered summary judgment in favor of the City.  The Fourth Circuit reversed in 2005, 125 Fed. Appx. 471, holding that the District Court's application of a highly deferential "fraud, bad faith, or gross mistake" standard was inappropriate because applying that standard to the city manager, who "in essence was adjudicating his own performance, rights, and liabilities under the contract," would result in an illusory contract.  Instead, the Fourth Circuit required review under "a standard of objective reasonableness 'based upon good faith and fair play.'"

After the Fourth Circuit's original decision, the parties agreed to re-arbitrate the matter, this time before a panel of three arbitrators.  In 2007, the panel ruled that MCI's termination was for cause.  At the damages hearing in 2008, the panel awarded the City $14,939,004.  In 2009, the Middle District rejected MCI's challenges and confirmed the award.

The Fourth Circuit rejected the three main arguments raised by MCI on appeal.  First, the Fourth Circuit held that the Middle District did not err in certifying the matter as final under Rule 54(b).  MCI's claims against the project engineer, who was not party to the arbitration proceedings, did not affect the arbitration in such a way as to require their adjudication before the arbitration award was confirmed.

Second, the Fourth Circuit held that there were no grounds, either under the FAA or at common law, to justify vacating the award.  The award was not procured by "undue means" despite MCI's arguments about allegedly objectionable conduct by opposing counsel.  "[N]o court has ever suggested that the term 'undue means' should be interpreted to apply to actions of counsel that are merely legally objectionable."  The Court also held that MCI failed to show that the alleged undue means led to the procurement of the award.  Although MCI argued that meeting this standard was impossible because the panel did not issue a reasoned award, the Fourth Circuit was unwilling to waive the causal element out of fear that parties would intentionally reject reasoned awards so as to ease their burden of proof later in judicial challenges to those awards.

The Court also rejected MCI's argument that the panel exceeded the scope of its authority.  "[N]either misinterpretation of a contract nor an error of law constitutes a ground on which an award can be vacated. . . .  As long as the arbitrator[s] [are] even arguably construing or applying the contract, as they were here, their awards will not be disturbed."

The Court likewise dismissed MCI's common-law argument that the award "failed to draw its essence" from the contract -- essentially that the award was "impossible to square" with certain contractual provisions.  In doing so, the Court avoided confronting the issue of whether there even exist any common law grounds to vacate arbitration awards after the Supreme Court's decision in Hall Street Associates, L.L.C. v. Mattel, Inc., 552 U.S. 576 (2008).

Finally, the Fourth Circuit rejected MCI's claim that the award was invalid because it was not reasoned.  MCI claimed that the arbitration was governed by JAMS Rule 24(h), which requires reasoned awards.  The arbitration agreement, however, allowed the panel to proceed pursuant to JAMS Rules or AAA Complex Commercial Arbitration Rules.  The panel having elected the latter, which do not require a reasoned award unless requested before appointment of the panel, the award remained valid.

The Brooks Pierce attorneys comprising the City's team before the Fourth Circuit included Bill Cary, George House, Mike Meeker, and Joey Ponzi.  A number of others at the firm have contributed to the case over its lengthy lifetime.

Full Opinion

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Mack Sperling
Brooks Pierce, LLP
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