The Homeowners hired the Contractor to do concrete and framing work on their property in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Contractor completed the work, but the Homeowners disagreed that is was done properly. They hired someone else to correct the work. A short time later, the Contractor submitted an invoice for the concrete and framing work to the Homeowners. The Homeowners only paid half of what was claimed owed by the Contractor. Apparently in recognition that a dispute had arisen, about two weeks later, the Homeowners and Contractor entered into an arbitration agreement:
Contractor and Owner agree to binding arbitration under AAA (American Arbitration Association) for any dispute (claim, work, material, etc.) between Contractor and Owner . . . . Contractor and Owner agree that the designated arbitrator shall be Roger Lengyel.Fast forward two years later, the Contractor filed a complaint in court for the unpaid amount. The Homeowners answered with an affirmative defense that the action must be dismissed in light of the arbitration agreement. The Court agreed and issued an order that stated in pertinent part:
the parties are compelled to arbitrate this matter pursuant to the terms of the arbitration agreement, requiring binding arbitration under the [AAA] with . . . Roger Lengyel as the designated arbitrator.The parties attempted arbitration but it quickly devolved with the Contractor sending a letter to the AAA requesting disqualification of the arbitrator for non-neutrality. According the Contractor, the arbitrator was having ex parte communications with the Homeowners and setting rules that only served to delay the arbitration (which benefited the Homeowners). The Homeowners insisted that the Court's order had designated the named arbitrator and usurped AAA's power to disqualify him. The AAA sought clarification from the court. The hearing justice concluded based on the language of the order that the AAA could disqualify. AAA did just that. The Homeowners appealed.
On appeal, the court applied New Mexico contract law for the interpretation and construction of the agreement. Because neither party argued that the agreement was ambiguous, the court simply was to determine "what do the words of the agreement mean and what is their legal effect"? The Homeowners argued for an "integral-ancillary" bifurcation of the agreement under the Rivera v. Am. Gen. Fin. Servs., Inc., 259 P.3d 803 (N.M. 2011). They claimed that because the designation of the arbitrator was introduced with the precatory "shall be Roger Lengyel," this provision is integral and must be abided, whereas the "under the AAA" was merely ancillary. The Court explained that Rivera was limited to its facts, where the parties had "clearly intended to use a designated institutional arbitration provider" but that provider no longer existed. As a result, the Rivera court held that the arbitration provision would have to stricken in its entirety because arbitrating with the chosen provider was integral to the agreement and the section could not be rewritten by the court. The Court continued that the instant dispute was much different. To treat the two cases as the same "would unreasonably treat as equivalent an unavailable arbitration provider and a disqualifiable arbitrator" with an available provider. Plus the Court noted that Rivera did not even get to the issue presented by the Homeowners -- weighing the relative value of two, separate provisions.
In the Court's de novo review of the agreement's language, the Court held that "most reasonable construction of this language is that 'under AAA' incorporates all of the AAA rules normally applicable to proceedings held under AAA's auspices." There was nothing in the agreement that limited the AAA's powers or made certain rules inapplicable. The Court acknowledged that the use of "shall" to designate the arbitrator is strong evidence that the parties agreed to use him. However there was nothing in agreement that this arbitrator could be non-neutral, which is contrary to the AAA rules. If this arbitrator could be non-neutral in violation of the AAA Rules, then it would "potentially cause [the Rules] to have no meaning." In sum, the Court held that "The most natural construction of the Arbitration Agreement is that the parties intended to arbitrate disputes between them concerning [the Contractor's] construction work under all of the AAA rules, with Lengyel serving as a neutral arbitrator. To interpret the Arbitration Agreement designating Lengyel to trump the AAA rule permitting replacement of a neutral arbitrator in certain circumstances would risk rendering the AAA Rules meaningless." Accordingly, the hearing justice's order and the AAA's disqualification were affirmed.
The author, Katharine Kohm, is a committee member for The Dispute Resolver. Katharine practices construction law and commercial litigation in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She is an associate at Pierce Atwood, LLP in Providence, Rhode Island. She may be contacted at 401-490-3407 or kkohm@PierceAtwood.com.