The Supreme Court of Hawai’i concluded last week that it is fundamentally unfair to allow one party to an arbitration agreement to unilaterally select the arbitral forum. Nishimura v. Gentry Homes, Ltd., __ P.3d__, 2014 WL 5503393 (Haw. Oct. 31, 2014).  The parties can either jointly agree to a forum, or the court will select it for them.

A putative class of homeowners sued their builder, alleging the homes lacked “adequate high wind protection.” The builder moved to compel arbitration. The arbitration agreement called for binding arbitration of all disputes relating to the design or construction of the home. It also stated the “arbitration shall be conducted by Construction Arbitration Services, Inc., or such other reputable arbitration service that [the warranty service corporation] shall select, at its sole discretion…” Because Construction Arbitration Services, Inc., was no longer administering construction arbitrations, the agreement allowed the builder and its warranty service to unilaterally chose the entity that would administer the arbitration.

The Hawaii high court refused to allow the builder such one-sided power. It adopted the Sixth Circuit’s “fundamental fairness” test to determine “whether an arbitrator-selection provision is enforceable.” Applying that test, the court affirmed the lower court’s finding that the sole discretion in the arbitration agreement is fundamentally unfair. (The court also clarified that a party challenging the arbitration agreement’s arbitrator selection process does not need to wait until the arbitration is over and does not need to prove actual bias.) The court therefore severed the arbitrator-selection sentence from the agreement, and affirmed the lower court’s order requiring the parties to try and agree on an arbitration service or else the court would fill in the gap.

I am not sure why the Sixth Circuit, and then Hawaii, would establish a separate test for invalidating an arbitrator selection provision, instead of just applying a routine unconscionability analysis. Creating a special test for arbitrator selection seems to invite a preemption argument.

Finally, a post script from last week’s post (noting that a wife was not bound to her husband’s arbitration agreement on a golf cart purchase). This week, a case went the other way, finding a wife was bound to her husband’s arbitration agreement. In Everett v. Paul Davis Restoration, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2014 WL 5573300 (7th Cir. Nov. 3, 2014), the court found that the wife had received many direct benefits from the franchise agreement signed only by her husband and therefore was bound by its arbitration agreement. (For example, she was a half owner of the company that ran the franchise and benefitted from “trading upon the name, goodwill, reputation and other direct contractual benefits of the franchise agreement.”) It also did not help that the husband-wife team colluded to avoid the restrictive covenant in the franchise agreement.

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By Liz Kramer

Liz Kramer is a shareholder at Leonard, Street and Deinard, one of the largest law firms in Minnesota, where she litigates complex business and construction disputes. Liz graduated from Yale Law School and is deeply knowledgeable on arbitration law. Website: www.arbitrationnation.com