The submission of a dispute to an unbiased third person designated by the parties to the controversy, who agree in advance to comply with the award—a decision to be issued after a hearing at which both parties have an opportunity to be heard.
Arbitration is a well-established and widely used means to end disputes. It is one of several kinds of ALTERNATIVE DISPUTE RESOLUTION, which provide parties to a controversy with a choice other than litigation. Unlike litigation, arbitration takes place out of court: the two sides select an impartial third party, known as an arbitrator; agree in advance to comply with the arbitrator's award; and then participate in a hearing at which both sides can present evidence and testimony. The arbitrator's decision is usually final, and courts rarely reexamine it.
Traditionally, labor and commerce were the two largest areas of arbitration. However, since the mid-1970s, the technique has seen great expansion. Some states have mandated arbitration for certain disputes such as auto insurance claims, and court decisions have broadened into areas such as SECURITIES, antitrust, and even employment discrimination. International business issues are also frequently resolved using arbitration.
Arbitration in the United States dates to the eighteenth century. Courts frowned on it, though, until attitudes started to change in 1920 with the passage of the first state arbitration law, in New York. This statute served as a model for other state and federal laws, including, in 1925, the U.S. Arbitration Act, later known as the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) (9 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq.). The FAA was intended to give arbitration equal status with litigation, and, in effect, created a body of federal law. After WORLD WAR II, arbitration grew increasingly important to labor-management relations. Congress helped this growth with passage of the TAFT-HARTLEY ACT (29 U.S.C.A. § 141 et seq.) in 1947, and over the next decade, the U.S. Supreme Court firmly cemented arbitration as the favored means for resolving labor issues, by limiting the judiciary's role. In the 1970s, arbitration began expanding into a wide range of issues that eventually included PRISONERS' RIGHTS, MEDICAL MALPRACTICE, and consumer rights. In 2003, all 50 states had modern arbitration statutes.
Arbitration can be voluntary or required. The traditional model is voluntary, and closely linked to contract law: parties often stipulate in contracts that they will arbitrate, rather than litigate, when disputes arise. For example, unions and employers almost always put an arbitration clause in their formal negotiations, known as collective bargaining agreements. By doing so, they agree to arbitrate any future employee grievances over wages, hours, working conditions, or job security—in essence, they agree not to sue if disagreements occur. Similarly, a purchaser and a provider of services who disagree over the result of a business deal may submit the problem to an arbitrator instead of a court. Mandatory arbitration is a more recent phenomenon. States such as Minnesota, New York, and New Jersey have enacted statutes that force disputes over automobile insurance claims into this forum. In addition, courts sometimes order disputants into arbitration.
In theory, arbitration has many advantages over litigation. Efficiency is perhaps the greatest. Proponents say arbitration is easier, cheaper, and faster. Proponents also point to the greater flexibility with which parties in arbitration can fashion the terms and rules of the process. Furthermore, although arbitrators can be lawyers, they do not need to be. They are often selected for their expertise in a particular area of business, and may be drawn from private practice or from organizations such as the American Arbitration Association (AAA), a national non-profit group founded in 1926. Significantly, arbitrators are freer than judges to make decisions, because they do not have to abide by the principle of stare decisis (the policy of courts to follow principles established by legal precedent) and do not have to give reasons to support their awards (although they are expected to adhere to the Code of Ethics for Arbitrators in Commercial Disputes, established in 1977 by the AAA and the AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION).
These theoretical advantages do not always hold up in practice. Even when efficiency is achieved, some critics argue, the price is a lower quality of justice, and it can be made worse by the difficulty of appealing an award. The charge is frequently made that arbitration only results in "splitting the baby"—dividing awards evenly among the parties. The AAA roundly rejects this claim. Yet even arbitrators agree that as arbitration has become increasingly formal, it sometimes resembles litigation in its complexity. This may not be an inherent problem with the process as much as a result of flawed use of it. Parties may undermine arbitration by acting as lawyers do in a lawsuit: excessively demanding discovery (evidence from the other side), calling witnesses, and filing motions.
Ultimately, the decision to use arbitration cannot be made lightly. Most arbitration is considered binding: parties who agree to arbitration are bound to that agreement and also bound to satisfy any award determined by the arbitrator. Courts in most jurisdictions enforce awards. Moreover, they allow little or no option for appeal, expecting parties who arbitrate to assume the risks of the process. In addition, arbitration is subject to the legal doctrines of RES JUDICATA and COLLATERAL ESTOPPEL, which together strictly curtail the option of bringing suits based on issues that were or could have been raised initially.
Res judicata means that a final judgment on the merits is conclusive as to the rights of the parties and their privies, and, as to them, operates as an absolute bar to a subsequent action involving the same claim, demand, or CAUSE OF ACTION. Collateral estoppel means that when an issue of ultimate fact has been determined by a valid judgment, that issue cannot be relitigated between the same parties in future litigation. Thus, often the end is truly in sight at the conclusion of an arbitration hearing and the granting of an award.
The FAA gives only four grounds on which a court may vacate, or overturn, an award: (1) where the award is the result of corruption, FRAUD, or undue means; (2) where the arbitrators were evidently partial or corrupt; (3) where the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing or hear pertinent evidence, or where their misbehavior prejudiced the rights of any party; and (4) where the arbitrators exceeded their powers or imperfectly executed them so that a mutual, final, and definite award was not made. In the 1953 case Wilkov. Swan, 346 U.S. 427, 74 S. Ct. 182, 98 L. Ed. 168, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested, in passing, that an award may be set aside if it is in "mani-fest disregard of the law," and federal courts have sometimes followed this principle. Public policy can also be grounds for vacating, but this recourse is severely limited to well-defined policy based on legal precedent, a rule emphasized by the Supreme Court in the 1987 case United Paperworkers International Union v. Misco, 484U.S. 29, 108 S. Ct. 364, 98 L. Ed. 2d 286.
The growth of arbitration is taken as a healthy sign by many legal commentators. It eases the load on a constantly overworked judicial system, while providing disputants with a relatively informal, inexpensive means to solve their problems. One major boost to arbitration came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in 1991 that AGE DISCRIMINATION claims in employment are arbitrable (Gilmer v. Inter-state/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 111 S. Ct. 1647, 114 L. Ed. 2d 26). Writing for the majority, Justice BYRON R. WHITE concluded that arbitration is as effective as a trial for resolving employment disputes. Gilmer led several major employers to treat all employment claims through binding arbitration, sometimes as a condition of employment.
Arbitration clauses have become a standard feature of many employment contracts. This has led to conflicts concerning the applicability of these clauses when an employee seeks to sue an employer for a CIVIL RIGHTS violation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT of 1991. A provision of this law addressed, for the first time, the arbitration of Title VII claims. Section 118 of the act states that the parties could, "where appropriate and to the extent authorized by law," choose to pursue alternative dispute resolution, including arbitration, to resolve their Title VII disputes. Since its enactment, the federal courts have been required to determine what this clause means in practice. For example, in the securities industry disputes arose over whether employers could require their employees to waive their right to bring a Title VII claim in court. The circuit courts of appeal have uniformly ruled that Congress did not mean to preclude compulsory arbitration of Title VII claims.
The EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION (EEOC) has contended that employment arbitration clauses do not prohibit the EEOC from filing an action against an employer for a civil rights violation. The Supreme Court agreed in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Waffle House, Inc., 534 U.S. 279, 122 S.Ct. 754, 151 L.Ed.2d 755 (2002), holding that the EEOC could seek damages on behalf of an employee. The commission could also seek injunctive relief to change a company's discriminatory methods. In so ruling, the Court resolved an issue that had divided the circuit courts of appeal.
The employee in question was fired from his job at the Waffle House after he suffered a seizure. He filed a claim with the EEOC, arguing that his rights under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been violated. Under this act, the EEOC has the authority to bring its own enforcement actions against employers and to seek reinstatement, backpay, and compensatory and PUNITIVE DAMAGES on behalf of an employee. Moreover, the ADA makes no exception for arbitration agreements, nor does it even mention arbitration. Therefore, the EEOC, which had not signed an arbitration agreement with the employer, was free to pursue its claims in court. The Court also concluded that the general policies surrounding the ADA, and the EEOC's enforcement arm, justified the pursuit by the EEOC of victim-specific relief. It stated that punitive damages "may often have a greater impact on the behavior of other employers than the threat of an injunction."
The Supreme Court also has validated the enforceability of arbitration awards relating to COLLECTIVE BARGAINING agreements. In Eastern Associated Coal Corporation v. United Mine Workers of American, District 17, 531 U.S. 57, 121S.Ct. 462, 148 L.Ed.2d 354 (2000), the issue involved a labor arbitrator who ordered an employer to reinstate an employee who had twice tested positive for marijuana use. The employer filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to have the arbitrator's decision vacated, arguing that the award went against a public policy against the operation of dangerous machinery by workers who test positive for drugs.
The Court unanimously agreed that the employee should be reinstated. The Court made it clear that the question was not whether the employee's drug use itself violated public policy, but whether the agreement to reinstate him did so. However, the Court also pointed out that the public policy exception is a narrow one. Based on these principles, the Court ruled that the reinstatement did not violate public policy, as the award did not condone drug use or its impact on public safety. In addition, the arbitrator placed conditions on the employee's reinstatement, which included suspension of work for three months without pay, participation in a substance abuse program, and continued random drug testing. The fact that the employee was a recidivist did not tip the balance in favor of discharge.