Sixth Circuit Concludes District Court Lacked Authority to Award Attorneys’ Fees Following Arbitration

Carlton Fields
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Carlton Fields

The Sixth Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision to award attorneys’ fees after the Circuit concluded that the claim on which the fees were awarded was subject to mandatory arbitration, and noted that the arbitrator had not awarded any fees for that claim.

Members of the UAW union sued TRW Automotive U.S. LLC for breach of contract and violations of ERISA claiming that TRW violated a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) when it changed their health care coverage. The district court compelled arbitration pursuant to a clause in the CBA that provided in relevant part that arbitration “shall be the exclusive remedy for the enforcement by [the union] of any claim against the Company.” The arbitrator ruled in favor of the union workers.

The district court then granted in part a motion the union filed seeking statutory attorneys’ fees for their ERISA vesting claim, a claim that the district court found was not before the arbitrator and was instead before the court. Specifically, the court “declined to award any ERISA attorney’s fees and costs incurred through the date of the arbitration award because ‘the ERISA claim was not addressed prior to or at arbitration’” but “granted [the union workers’] request for attorney’s fees and costs related to their ERISA claim incurred after the arbitration award.”

The Sixth Circuit reversed. In short, the Court concluded that the district court “lacked the authority” to award fees or otherwise make rulings on the union workers’ ERISA vesting claim “because the ERISA vesting claim and ERISA attorney’s fee claim . . . were both subject to mandatory arbitration under the CBA, allowing only limited court review for issues of legality or enforcement.”  The Court explained:  “Once the arbitrator finds a merits violation, the parties are responsible for raising any remedy issues in their remedy demands during arbitration. . . .  The parties do not have to return to the district court once a merits violation is found just to seek permission to present ‘ripe’ remedy issues to the arbitrator. Plaintiffs’ position, presented without any supporting legal authority, would lead to an untenable result where the arbitrator performs fact-finding but the district court issues the remedy. Not only would this contradict the CBA’s declaration that arbitration is the exclusive remedy for any dispute, but it would also defeat the purpose of arbitration if the parties still have to litigate remedy issues in federal court.”

UAW International et al. v. TRW Automotive U.S. LLC, Nos. 19-2252/2262 (6th Cir. Mar. 11, 2021).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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