Monday, July 20, 2009

SUM Arbitration Award Confirmed -- Inconsistency of Prior No-Fault Arbitration Award Not Given Preclusive Effect

Matter of Falzone v. New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co.
(4th Dept., decided 7/2/2009)

Falzone arbitrated New York Central Mutual's denial of no-fault benefits and won.  She then arbitrated her related SUM claim against NYCM before a different arbitrator and lost on the ground that her injuries were not caused by the accident.  Contending that the second arbitration decision was inconsistent from the first, and that NYCM was collaterally estopped in the SUM arbitration from relitigating the issue of causation with respect to her injuries, Falzone commenced this CPLR article 75 special proceeding to vacate or modify the SUM arbitration award.  Supreme Erie granted petitioner's motion to vacate the SUM award and NYCM appealed.

In a 3-2 split decision, the Fourth Department, Appellate Division, REVERSED the order and confirmed the SUM arbitration award, holding:
The fact that a prior arbitration award is inconsistent with a subsequent award is not an enumerated ground in either subdivision (b) or (c) of CPLR 7511 for vacating or modifying the subsequent award (see Matter of City School Dist. of City of Tonawanda v Tonawanda Educ. Assn., 63 NY2d 846, 848). As the court properly recognized, "[i]t was within the [SUM] arbitrator's authority to determine the preclusive effect of the prior arbitration on the instant arbitration" (Matter of Progressive N. Ins. Co. v Sentry Ins. A Mut. Co., 51 AD3d 800, 801). The court erred in noting, however, that it was unable to determine whether the SUM arbitrator even considered claimant's contention with respect to collateral estoppel. Arbitrators are not required to provide reasons for their decisions (see Matter of Solow Bldg. Co. v Morgan Guar. Trust Co. of N.Y., 6 AD3d 356, 356-357, lv denied 3 NY3d 605, cert denied 543 US 1148; Matter of Guetta [Raxon Fabrics Corp.], 123 AD2d 40, 41), and thus the SUM arbitrator was not required to state that he had considered that contention.
Two justices dissented and voted to affirm the award.  While acknowledging that collateral estoppel "is not a basis on which [Supreme C]ourt may, under CPLR 7511, vacate an arbitration award," the dissent nevertheless noted that
vacatur is permitted where the award 'violates a strong public policy, is irrational or clearly exceeds a specifically enumerated limitation on the arbitrator's power' " (Matter of Mays-Carr [State Farm Ins. Co.], 43 AD3d 1439, 1439, quoting Matter of New York City Tr. Auth. v Transport Workers' Union of Am., Local 100, AFL-CIO, 6 NY3d 332, 336; see generally CPLR 7511 [b] [1] [iii]). In our view, the arbitrator who issued the award with respect to supplemental uninsured motorist (SUM) benefits exceeded his power by disregarding the preclusive effect of a prior arbitration award and instead issuing a different determination with respect to causation, involving the same parties and based upon the same facts (see Matter of American Honda Motor Co. v Dennis, 259 AD2d 613; Motor Veh. Acc. Indem. Corp. v Travelers Ins. Co., 246 AD2d 420, 422).
The dissent further observed that in this matter there were no factual issues regarding whether the no-fault arbitration award should be given preclusive effect.  "The SUM arbitrator was thus barred from relitigating the issue of causation between the identical parties, inasmuch as it was 'actually contested and therefore determined by the [prior] award' ", reasoned the dissent. 

Although some practitioners may regard the majority's decision as standing for the proposition that collateral estoppel no longer attaches to no-fault arbitration awards in the Fourth Department, the majority's ruling is much more narrow than that.  The majority reversed the trial judge and confirmed the award not because they believed collateral estoppel could or did not apply to preclude NYCM from relitigating injury causality, but because they (and the dissent) adhered to the rule that collateral estoppel is not a basis on which Supreme Court may, under CPLR 7511, vacate an arbitration award.

Editor's Note ~~ The New York Court of Appeals AFFIRMED this decision on October 21, 2010.  The Court's 6-1 opinion is here.  

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