Texas Federal Judge Declines to Rule on Procedural Issues in Multiple Successive Arbitrations Filed by Same Parties, Leaving Dispute to Arbitrators

Carlton Fields

Carlton Fields

This litigation involved 21 parties spread across six different arbitrations in front of six different arbitrators. The litigation arose out of a dispute between two doctors, their business entities, and captive insurers (the plaintiffs), and a lawyer, law firm, and its affiliates (the defendants). The doctors engaged the defendants to create captive insurers and tax shelters for the doctors. After the U.S. Tax Court issued a ruling with negative consequences for the shelters, the doctors asked the defendants to “liquidate and wind down” the doctors’ program, but the defendants refused.

The Arbitrations

Both sides sought arbitration: the defendants brought the first arbitration in Houston, Texas, before Judge Dorfman, and the plaintiffs brought the second arbitration in Louisiana before Judge Duval. The plaintiffs also commenced a lawsuit against the defendants in Texas state court, alleging breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, tort, legal malpractice, and breach of professional obligations, which was removed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in which the defendants moved to compel the doctors’ business entities’ participation in the Texas arbitration. The plaintiffs responded with a cross-motion to compel the defendants to join in the Louisiana arbitration and to challenge the Texas arbitration, while also seeking a stay of the Texas arbitration pending a ruling on the motions. The defendants then initiated a third arbitration before Judge Baker in Houston Texas, asserting additional claims that the defendants were denied leave to supplement their arbitration demand in the first arbitration.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion to compel and ordered the parties to arbitrate two of their disputes before Judge Dorfman and Judge Baker in Houston, relying on a written arbitration agreement between the parties that required all arbitrations to be conducted in Houston. The district court denied the plaintiffs’ motion to compel arbitration in Louisiana and stayed the arbitration pending before Judge Duval and the related proceedings in the federal litigation so that the Texas arbitration could go forward. The plaintiffs appealed the district court’s decision to stay the litigation.

While the district court was making its decision to stay the litigation, the plaintiffs filed a fourth arbitration before arbitrator Robert Kutcher in Louisiana. The plaintiffs thereafter filed a fifth arbitration, based on allegedly newly discovered facts, before Judge Medley in Louisiana, and a sixth arbitration before Judge Gill-Jefferson in Louisiana, but the plaintiffs requested that the new arbitrations be held in Houston.

Defendants’ Emergency Motion to Lift the Stay

After the district court issued its decision to stay the litigation, the defendants filed an emergency motion asking the district court to lift its stay and enjoin the fourth, fifth, and sixth arbitrations, arguing that these Louisiana arbitrations were proceeding in an improper venue and were inefficient “copycat” arbitrations seeking to resolve the same “core dispute” at issue in the Judge Baker and Judge Dorfman arbitrations in Texas.

The district court found no appropriate circumstances justifying an order lifting the stay in the case or staying the recently filed fourth, fifth, and sixth arbitrations. The district court recognized the interesting procedural questions that arose with respect to whether only the final hearing, or also interim hearings, must occur in Houston — as the arbitrators in these later-filed arbitrations were hearing disputes virtually via Zoom and some had issued interim decisions from Louisiana, but none had required the parties to travel to Louisiana. The district court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the fourth, fifth, and sixth arbitrations were inefficient “copycat” arbitrations, noting that the arbitration agreement did not preclude the parties from proceeding with separate arbitrations for disputes involving overlapping but different facts.

However, the district court concluded that while the more recently filed arbitrations must “proceed” in Houston under the arbitration agreement, the required location for interim hearings, the manner in which arbitrators must appear in a location, and permissible consolidation procedures are disputes about procedural questions that are best left for the arbitrators to address, not the court.

Defendants’ Motion to Confirm the Final Award

After the emergency motion was filed, Judge Dorfman issued a final award in the first arbitration, finding that the defendants were not required to immediately wind down and liquidate the captive insurers. The defendants moved to confirm that award before the district court.

The plaintiffs argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction to lift the stay it imposed in the litigation and confirm the award by Judge Dorfman because the plaintiffs were appealing the district court’s decision allowing arbitration before Judge Dorfman. Rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that it lacked jurisdiction to lift the stay, the district court noted that this case involved several arbitrations that were not implicated by the plaintiffs’ appeal, and thus it had jurisdiction to lift the stay to address issues in arbitration proceedings not implicated by the plaintiffs’ appeal.

The district court, however, agreed with the plaintiffs that their appeal targeted Judge Dorfman’s appointment and his ability to preside over the parties’ arbitration. Because the defendants were asking the district court to confirm an award Judge Dorfman granted, which would require the district court to decide that Judge Dorfman had the power to grant an arbitration award, the district court recognized that such a decision may conflict with a decision of the appellate court. The district court therefore declined to exercise jurisdiction over issues currently on appeal.

The district court explained that these proceedings were “inefficient and messy” when it compelled arbitration back in August 2020, but since “the parties applied their contract to make this mess but agreed that arbitration would resolve their disputes, no matter how messy,” the district court was not going to “step in to clean it up and risk making it worse.” The district court simply refused to interfere.

Sullivan v. Feldman, No. 4:20-cv-02236 (S.D. Tex. Dec. 4, 2020).

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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