Eleventh Circuit Affirms Confirmation of Arbitration Award Over Claims of Fraud, AAA Rule-Breaking, and Lack of Jurisdiction
By: Brendan N. Gooley
The Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed the confirmation of an arbitration award in a dispute involving a contract to obtain signatures for a Florida solar energy ballot initiative over claims that the prevailing party engaged in fraud, violated AAA rules, and that the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction to add attorneys’ fees to his award months after the arbitration hearing.
PCI Consultants Inc. contracts with entities and organizations to obtain signatures for petitions for ballot initiatives in exchange for a fee. In 2015, PCI contracted with Floridians for Solar Choice Inc. and Solar Alliance for Clean Energy Inc. (together, the Solar parties) to obtain signatures to support a proposed ballot initiative for a solar energy amendment to the Florida Constitution. A dispute arose regarding payment. The Solar parties believed they paid PCI what it was due, but PCI withheld 217,000 signed petitions due to purported nonpayment. The dispute concerned additional expenses for a different ballot initiative concerning medical marijuana. PCI claimed the Solar parties agreed to share expenses with the medical marijuana campaign while the Solar parties disputed that they agreed to cover those expenses.
Floridians for Solar Choice sued alleging various claims in a U.S. District Court in Florida and moved to compel arbitration. The court granted that motion, and Solar Alliance subsequently appeared in the arbitration. After a three-day hearing, the single arbitrator who heard the dispute ruled in favor of the Solar parties and awarded $1,271,250 in damages. Several months later, the arbitrator also tacked on interest, costs, and fees for a total award of approximately $2,015,900.
The district court confirmed the award over PCI’s motion to vacate, agreeing that the award of interest, costs, and fees was proper. PCI appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
On appeal, PCI claimed (1) the Solar parties committed fraud during the arbitration proceedings by altering their damages analysis; (2) the Solar parties violated AAA rules that PCI claimed required the appointment of three arbitrators rather than one; and (3) the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction to award fees months after the arbitration hearing.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected all of PCI’s claims and affirmed the award’s confirmation.
First, PCI claimed that the Solar parties committed fraud by increasing their claimed damages in their post-hearing brief. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, noting that the requirements of the test it applied for the FAA’s fraud exception were not satisfied. The court noted that PCI cited no case holding that “a change in damages theory constitutes ‘fraud’ or ‘undue means’ under” the FAA’s fraud exception. The Solar parties’ post-hearing demand for more than $1,000,000 was supported by the record even though they initially sought less than $500,000. (The Solar parties apparently initially sought partial reimbursement for the per-signature fee of the 217,000 withheld petitions, but later successfully argued they were entitled to full reimbursement for those petitions.)
Second, the court rejected PCI’s contention that it was entitled to a three-arbitrator panel, noting that AAA rules allowed the parties to agree on one or three arbitrators and provided that if the parties were unable to agree and the claim involved more than $1 million, then the matter would be heard by three arbitrators. The facts established that PCI had agreed to a single arbitrator knowing that this case potentially involved more than $1 million. In its statement of claim, Floridians for Solar Choice demanded $500,000 to $1 million-plus punitive damages, and when Solar Alliance was added as a party it sought additional damages. Despite being on notice that the claimed damages exceeded $ million, PCI did not request a three-arbitrator panel and instead stipulated to one arbitrator.
Third, the Eleventh Circuit rejected PCI’s contention that the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction to award fees when he did so several months after the arbitration because the arbitrator lost jurisdiction over the case 30 days after the hearing. The court noted that it has rejected the notion that arbitrators act outside their authority merely because they do not follow the AAA’s rules regarding the time for issuing decisions. It also noted that several other circuits have held that whether an arbitration award was timely is not a jurisdictional issue. In this case, the parties also stipulated that all motions for attorneys’ fees would be resolved after the hearing.
Floridians for Solar Choice, Inc. v. Paparella, No. 18-12907 (11th Cir. Mar. 3, 2020).