How Well Should You Know Your Arbitrator?

bvccffThis cautionary tale comes from a case called Mt. Holyoke Homes, L.P., v. Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, LLP (No. B243912). The facts are straightforward. Mt. Holyoke Homes hired Los Angeles law firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell to provide legal services in connection with a real estate development.

When lawyers at the Jeffer firm failed to timely challenge the California Coastal Commission’s exercise of jurisdiction over Mt. Holyoke’s application for a development permit, Mt. Holyoke sued the firm for legal malpractice. Jeffer Mangels petitioned to compel arbitration, which was required under its engagement agreement with Mt. Holyoke. The law firm also sought to recover unpaid legal fees.

The parties jointly selected Retired Judge Eli Chernow to serve as the arbitrator over the malpractice action. According to the case, Judge Chernow made the following disclosures at the outset of his engagement:

“Judge Chernow disclosed that Defendants’ counsel had represented a party to a mediation before him within the past five years, but stated that he was not aware of any relationship with any party or attorney involved in this matter that would impair his ability to act fairly and impartially. Judge Chernow later disclosed that he had known Benjamin Reznik for many years. He also disclosed that he had conducted an arbitration and a mediation involving Adler more than five years earlier. The parties agreed to his appointment as arbitrator despite these disclosures.”

Judge Chernow ultimately issued an award in Jeffer Mangels’ favor on the grounds that its members had not breached the applicable standard of care nor caused Mt. Holyoke’s damages. He awarded the law firm $18,132.81 in unpaid legal fees, $285,000 in attorney fees incurred in connection with the arbitration, and over $150,000 in costs.

Smelling a rat, one of the Mt. Holyoke plaintiffs scoured the internet looking for evidence of bias on the part of the arbitrator. According to the case:

“She discovered for the first time a previously undisclosed resume in which Judge Chernow had named Robert Mangels, a name partner in JMBM, as a reference. She found a link to the resume on the Internet site of the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals. Mangels was the first of three “References” listed on the resume.”

Reasonable minds will differ on whether this was really smoking gun evidence of bias. Judge Chernow signed a declaration attesting to the fact that the “resume” had been prepared 10 years earlier and that “he had listed Mangels as a reference only because Mangels was a well-known and highly-regarded litigator who was familiar with his abilities as a neutral.”

The trial court, unimpressed with the internet revelations, granted Jeffer’s petition to confirm the arbitration award and denied Mt. Holyoke’s petition to vacate the award. But—you guessed it—Mt. Holyoke appealed, and the California Court of Appeal held that it was error for the trial court to deny the petition to vacate the award based on the revelations of Judge Chernow’s . . . er . . . sordid past with Robert Mangles. The Court said:

“ . . . the connection between the undisclosed fact of the arbitrator’s naming an attorney as a reference on his resume and the subject matter of the arbitration, a legal malpractice action against the law firm in which the same attorney is a partner, is sufficiently close that a person reasonably could entertain a doubt that the arbitrator could be impartial. We conclude that Judge Chernow was required to disclose the fact that he had listed Mangels as a reference on his resume. Judge Chernow did not state in his declaration that at the time of his required disclosures he was not aware that he had listed Mangels as a reference on his resume, and there appears to be no reasonable dispute that he was aware of that fact at that time. His failure to timely disclose this ground for disqualification of which he was then aware compels the vacation of the arbitrator’s award.”

The real loser here is Jeffer Mangels or its malpractice carrier, who now have to re-try and, presumably, re-win the malpractice case. Perhaps there really was bias, though I doubt it. Judge Chernow is a pretty well-respected neutral. However, this case highlights the risks if you don’t know your arbitrator really, really well (or if you actually do know your arbitrator really, really well). I never said arbitration wasn’t risky, expensive and unpredictable.

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

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