By Dennis Brown and Greil Roberts on November 5, 2018
Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani partners Dennis O. Brown and Greil Roberts obtained a significant appeal win in a complex insurance coverage case for a major insurer on October 25, 2018, when a New York state appeals court vacated a nearly $12 Million arbitration award to Allied Capital Corporation.
The appeal arose out of an arbitration that began in 2010. Allied Capital sought coverage from its insurer for a $10.1 million payment made to settle claims by the federal government arising out of the False Claims Act. The insurer denied coverage, and Allied filed for arbitration under its insurance policies, seeking to be compensated for the $10.1 million settlement payment plus defense costs.
In March 2016, in a 2-1 decision, the arbitration panel said the $10.1 million settlement was not a “Loss” under the policy; thus, Allied could not recover that amount. However, the arbitration panel decided that Allied was entitled to its defense costs, though the arbitration panel reserved the amount of defense costs to be awarded for a subsequent proceeding.
Not long thereafter, Allied sought reconsideration of the March 2016 award on the basis that the majority of the arbitration panel erred in finding that Allied did not suffer a “Loss” under the policy. The arbitration panel, in another 2-1 decision, determined that it was permitted to reconsider the March 2016 award and reversed itself, finding that the $10.1 million amount was a “Loss” under the policy.
The insurance company petitioned in New York state court for an order vacating the reconsidered award as having been rendered in excess of the powers and authority available to the arbitration panel. Specifically, the insurance company argued that the panel exceeded its authority based on the common law doctrine of functus officio. Under functus officio, an arbitrator cannot alter its final award except in limited circumstances.
The insurer argued that the March 2016 partial final award was final in the sense that it determined the extent of the insurer’s liability for Allied’s claim. The insurance company argued that Allied’s counsel agreed to bifurcation of two issues: (1) the issue of coverage for Allied’s claim to be indemnified for the $10.1 million, and (2) whether Allied was entitled to recover defense costs and, if so, the amount of such recovery. Since the arbitration panel had resolved the first issue completely in the March 2016 award, the arbitration panel had no authority to subsequently alter that award. For its part, Allied argued that there had been no bifurcation, and since the issue of defense costs had not been fully resolved, there was no final award and the arbitration panel was permitted to reconsider its decision.
The state court denied the petition, and the insurance company appealed. On October 25, 2018, in a 4-1 decision, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, First Department, agreed with the insurance company’s position that the panel exceeded its authority and improperly reconsidered the original partial final award:
There is nothing in the record that remotely suggests that the parties or the panel believed that the [March 2016 award] would be anything less than a final determination of such issues and under the functus officio doctrine, it would be improper and in excess of the panel’s authority for such final determination to be revisited.
The mere fact that the amount of defense costs had not been decided, the Court found, did not permit the panel’s reconsideration of the award: “In this case, the panel was functus officio with respect to the [partial final award] and thus, the panel’s reconsideration of the [partial final award] on substantive grounds was improper and exceeded its authority.”
The Court rejected Allied’s argument that, since the arbitration panel itself had found that it was not functus officio, it was entitled to reconsider the March 2016 award. The Court reasoned that, by Allied’s arguments, an arbitrator could avoid exceeding its authority when reconsidering a partial final award as long as the arbitrator stated that the parties did not bifurcate the proceedings or that the arbitrator did not intend for the award to be final as to a particular issue. However, “there is no support for such theory in the relevant case law,” the Court concluded.