Third Circuit Affirms District Court’s Vacatur of Arbitration Award Where There Was No Agreement To Arbitrate, Leaving the Arbitrator Without Power To Act

Carlton Fields
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Carlton Fields

In early 2017, Transco received authorization from the federal government to construct a natural gas pipeline that required rights-of-way over several tracts of private property, including property owned by Regec. After failed negotiations as to how much money Regec should be paid for Transco’s use of his property, Transco brought a condemnation action, under the Natural Gas Act 15 U.S.C. § 717, against Regec in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Regec filed a copy of a “foreign final judgment via arbitration award,” which described an alleged breach by Transco of a “contract” it entered into with Regec via “tacit acquiescence.” Transco did not participate in the arbitration, yet the arbitrator awarded Regec approximately $55 million and mailed a copy of the arbitration award to Transco’s office in Texas.

Even though the filing containing the arbitration award was struck by the district court, Regec nevertheless requested confirmation of the award under the Federal Arbitration Act. Transco responded with a motion to vacate the award under § 10(a) of the FAA, claiming that the award is “null and void.” The district court granted Transco’s motion by order entered October 8, 2019. Regec appealed.

On appeal, the Third Circuit held that it had jurisdiction under the FAA to review the October 8 order because the FAA provides grounds for immediate appeal distinct from principles of “finality” under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, certain grounds which were present in this case.

Addressing the merits of the October 8 order, the panel affirmed the district court’s vacatur of the arbitration award.

The panel rejected Regec’s jurisdictional challenge, finding that the district court had supplemental jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) to rule on Transco’s motion to vacate because the subject of the arbitration award was “so related” to the claims in the condemnation action, such that the contract giving rise to the arbitration award was formed as a result of litigation events in the condemnation action.

The panel also rejected Regec’s service-related challenge, holding that the district court did not err in finding Transco used a proper method to serve the motion to vacate, since service of a motion to confirm the arbitration award by a U.S. Marshal is unnecessary where a party is already before the court. Because service was proper, the panel also concluded that the motion to vacate was timely under the FAA.

Most significantly, the panel held that the district court did not err in granting Transco’s motion to vacate the arbitration award, which was based primarily on its conclusions that “the parties never agreed to arbitrate and so the arbitrator here had no jurisdiction,” and that “Transco received no notice of the ex parte arbitration proceeding or opportunity to be heard, and … suffered prejudice as a result.”  The panel found that arbitrator acted outside the scope of his contractually delegated authority—issuing an award that simply reflects his own notions of economic justice rather than drawing its essence from the contract—because there is no discernable agreement between the parties to arbitrate the dispute described by Regec. The panel made clear that absent an arbitration agreement, the arbitrator was without power to act.

Transcon. Gas Pipe Line Co LLC v. Permanent Easement for 2.59 Acres, Temp. Easements for 5.45 Acres & Temp. Access Easement for 2.12 Acres in Pine Grove Twp., Schuylkill Cty., PA, Tax Parcel No. 21-04-0016.000 361, Chapel Drive, Pine Grove, Pine Grove Twp., Schuylkill Cty. PA, No. 19-2738 (3d Cir. Oct. 28, 2020).

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