The First Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Renwick, reversing Supreme Court, determined the arbitrator’s award of attorney’s fees to the plaintiff should not have been vacated, but the arbitrator’s award of a money judgment to OHM, which had contracted with plaintiff but was not a party to any agreement to arbitrate with the defendant, should be vacated. The opinion includes a clear explanation of a court’s limited powers of review of an arbitration award and is too comprehensive to fairly summarize here. The court noted, with regard to the American rule generally prohibiting the award of attorney’s fees, New York law is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA):
… [T]he parties agree that manifest disregard of the law is the only appropriate ground to vacate the arbitrator’s award of attorneys’ fees … .
For an award to be set aside for manifest disregard, the arbitrator must understand and correctly state the law, but proceed to disregard the same … . Application of the “manifest disregard of law” standard requires the court to make, in essence, three inquiries: (1) whether the legal principle allegedly ignored by the arbitrator was well defined, explicit, and clearly applicable; (2) whether the arbitrators knew of the governing legal principle; and, (3) whether knowing that principle, the arbitrators refused to apply it or ignored it … . A court may not vacate an arbitration award because it thinks the arbitrators made the wrong decision … . Indeed, even if the court thinks that the arbitrator reached the wrong result or applied the law incorrectly, the court should nevertheless confirm the award, “despite [the] court’s disagreement with it on the merits, if there is a barely colorable justification for the outcome reached” … . * * *
Under established law, “[t]he question whether the parties have submitted a particular dispute to arbitration, i.e., the question of arbitrability, is an issue for judicial determination [u]nless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise” … . * * *
Arbitration is a matter of contract, and a party cannot be forced to arbitrate a dispute that it did not expressly agree to submit to arbitration … . “Courts should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that they did so . . . . In this manner the law treats silence or ambiguity about the question who (primarily) should decide arbitrability’ differently from the way it treats silence or ambiguity about the question whether a particular merits-related dispute is arbitrable because it is within the scope of a valid arbitration agreement’ for in respect to this latter question the law reverses the presumption” … . An arbitrator’s decision to assert jurisdiction, over objection, is subject to a much broader and more rigorous judicial review than an arbitral decision on the merits, and because it is “a question for the court to decide,” it is subject to de novo judicial review … . Matter of Steyn v CRTV, LLC, 2019 NY Slip Op 05341, First Dept 7-2-19