Thursday, July 13, 2017

Can Kicking on a Costs Ruling

Heimlich v. Shivji, No. H062641 (D6 May 31, 2017)

About a year into an Attorney-Client fee dispute, Client made an offer of judgment under Code of Civil Procedure § 998 to settle the case for thirty grand. Attorney didn’t respond. Months after that, client sought to compel arbitration under the parties’ fee agreement. For reasons unclear, the trial court compelled the case to arbitration after summary judgment was denied, which ended in a $0 award where each party bore its own costs and fees. 

Client tried to raise the § 998 offer with the arbitrator as a basis of fee-shifting. But the arbitrator said that since her award had been rendered, she no longer had jurisdiction to address the question. As part of an effort to confirm the (lack of) award, Client asked the court to shift costs based on his beating the pre-arbitration § 998 offer. The trial court denied relief, finding that the issue should have been raised with the arbitrator before the substantive award was entered. Client appeals.

Some relevant legal points at play here. 1. § 998 was amended in 1997 to apply in arbitrations. 2. § 1293.2 permits a court upon confirmation of an arbitral award to award the same kinds of costs that are recoverable by a prevailing party in a civil litigation. 3. § 1284.2 says that, absent a contractual agreement otherwise, a party bears his own costs plus his pro rata share of the expenses of arbitration, such as the arbitrator’s fee.

Courts have generally read the interplay between 2 and 3 to mean that a court can shift court-related costs of compelling, confirming, or vacating an arbitration, but not costs incurred within the arbitral process itself. The 1997 amendments to § 998, however, change that somewhat, permitting the recovery of costs within the arbitration, even if not contractually agreed to. That’s not too controversial. But still, who decides? Generally litigants have been expected to enforce intra-arbitration cost shifting within the context of the arbitration, not afterwards.

The trouble with putting the question to the arbitrator is that with the exception of a limited authority to correct obvious or immaterial errors, the arbitrator doesn’t have much in the way of post-award jurisdiction. Cases and statues re pretty clear on that. But when it comes to a § 998 issue, that makes absolutely no sense, because an arbitrator can’t decide if a § 998 offer was bested until a decision has been rendered. Indeed, § 998 itself says that a rejected offer is inadmissible in evidence during a case on the merits.

So it’s a quintessential Catch 22. A § 998 “determination necessarily must postdate an arbitration award,” since there’s no way to adjudicate the § 998 before the award is entered, particularly when the rejection is inadmissible. But the arbitrator basically lacks jurisdiction to do that. 

Lacking many great options, and hemmed in by conflicting case law, the Court of Appeal just gets to rulin’ in the interest of common sense. It says: 1. an arbitrator can and should consider a post-award § 998 motion, and has jurisdiction to do so. 2. If the arbitrator won’t do that, he has failed to consider a submitted issue—a grounds for vacation under § 1283.4 and related case law. So the arbitrator here made that mistake.

The court thus orders the matter remanded for reconsideration by the arbitrator. But if that doesn’t work, there is some tangential dicta in a Supreme Court case that says something from which one could read—were one to squint a little and turn your head like a puppy—that a superior court can also entertain such an award if the arbitrator refuses to do so. So if the arbitrator continues to refuse, the superior court should address the issue on remand.


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