RSS Feed
Tags Index

Law Rules

How we resolve our disputes

Entries in contract (3)

Monday
Oct292012

Making law

Every few months, I talk to a local business networking group about the law. I get my topic by asking members to submit a question to me in advance. I call it “Ask the Attorney.” This month, the topic concerned an arbitration that involved real estate agent’s client. I explained that the arbitration must have arisen out of an agreement to arbitrate. Members of the group seemed surprised to learn that no law compelled them to enter into an agreement to mediate or arbitrate a dispute. My presentation showed how law was frequently made by one of our 3 branches of government (legislative, executive or judicial). But even more “law” was made by mutual agreement between individuals or business entities. We call these agreements contracts. In effect, a contract makes law between the parties to the agreement. That law is enforceable in court just as any statute passed by the legislature or any rule properly made by an administrative agency. But it can be enforced only by or against the parties to contract, or by designated beneficiaries of the agreement. Therefore, the procedure and outcome of the real estate arbitration in question depended on the terms of the agreement to arbitrate.

Near the end of my presentation, one of the group members asked whether I recommended that all of their business agreements contain an aribtration or mediation clause. Again, I think my answer surprised them. I told them that I did not recommend inserting an arbitration or mediation clause into every business contract without considering the costs of those proceedings, the nature and goals of their business, and the types of disputes likely to arise. I also explained that such clauses do not have to be agreed to before any dispute arises. Arbitration and mediation agreements can, and frequently are, entered into after a dispute arises. Of course, even if you do have a mediation or arbitration agreement in your contract, you can waive the right to enforce it by mutual consent or conduct inconsistent with enforcement.

The beauty of any agreement to arbitrate or mediate is that you are being proactive in addressing your dispute. Too many people leave dispute resolution to their attorneys or the courts, leaving the details to lawyers. Mediation and arbitration are much more hands on for the real parties. By tailoring the procedure to your dispute, you increase your chances of an acceptable, timely and economical resolution. There may be times when you want to set a public precedent or change existing law, which requires litigation in court and maybe an appeal. In other situations, you may be more concerned about confidentiality or putting the dispute behind you as soon as possible. Whatever your goal may be, it is always better to have options and to think about them before making a choice.

It is important to remember that, when entering into any kind of contract, you are making law. That is an awesome responsibility. Exercise it wisely.

Wednesday
Oct052011

An ounce of prevention . . . 

Maybe it’s the economy. Or maybe it’s the latest negotiation tactic. Lately, I have conducted several mediations in which one party claims that it will file for bankruptcy if it does not prevail in the pending litigation. Collectibility is frequently an issue in mediation, but the spectre of bankruptcy raises it to a higher level. If a settlement is reached and the party who pays money then files for bankruptcy protection, will the recipient have to pay it back to the trustee to be distributed equitably to all creditors? In one case, the plaintiff alleged its business losses were due to conversion by a business partner — an intentional tort that could not be discharged in bankruptcy.

Of course, many business disputes, especially between partners, can be avoided with carefully worded contracts, partnership agreements or corporate documents. Unfortunately, in the recent cases I have mediated, the contracts and other documents were not carefully worded. In some instances, they were non-existent or, at best, inartfully drafted. Maybe the parties did not feel the need for written agreements, or maybe they were too cheap to pay attorneys to draft them. But I suspect that well-drafted legal documents would have come in handy when it came time to end the relationships or resolve disputes. In the absence of such documentation, the litigation became a he said/she said affair. And the mediation boiled down to “give me what I want” or “accept what I am offering” or else I’ll file for bankruptcy.

A transactional or business attorney’s best marketing tool is to tell a client to “pay me now or pay the litigators later.” In the cases I have seen, parties who scrimped on business planning and documentation have gotten what they paid for. Trouble.

Monday
Jun082009

Litigate? Arbitrate? Pick one & stick with it!

Jerry Seinfeld once commented on Oprah Winfrey’s fluctuating weight by saying “She’s fat, she’s thin, she’s fat again. Why doesn’t she pick one weight and stick with it?”  That seems to be the approach the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals took in Nicholas v. KBR Inc, No. 08-20140 (5th. Cir. 4/15/2009). 

After her husband died in 2006 as a result of mesothelioma, a widow discovered that her husband’s employer had promised to continue to pay for her husband’s life insurance policy after he could no longer work, but failed to do so.  The widow sued the employer and the parties conducted some discovery.   After the court conducted a scheduling conference, the widow discovered that the employer’s agreement contained an arbitration provision and she filed a motion to compel arbitration.  The employer argued that the widow waived her right to arbtrate by filing the lawsuit.  Also, the employer claimed it had been prejudiced by having to litigate the matter for more than 10 months.  The district court agreed and denied the motion.  On appeal, the 5th Circuit also agreed and remanded for further proceedings in the district court.  Apparently, we are legally required to know not only what is in contracts that we sign, but also what is in contracts that our spouses sign.