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La Vale Plaza Inc. v. R. S. Noonan Inc.

decided: May 26, 1967.


McLaughlin, Hastie and Freedman, Circuit Judges.

Author: Freedman


FREEDMAN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal takes us into the difficult realm of the Pennsylvania law of arbitration with its distinction between so-called common law and statutory arbitration.

Appellant, La Vale Plaza, Inc., contracted for the construction of a shopping center by R. S. Noonan, Inc. Because a dispute arose regarding the amount due it, Noonan filed with the American Arbitration Association a demand for arbitration under the provisions of the contract.*fn1 Ultimately, on December 10, 1963, the arbitrators rendered an award in favor of Noonan in the amount of $30,861.64. Their award expressly declared that it was "in full settlement of all claims submitted to this arbitration one against the other."

Two months later, La Vale brought the present action to recover the amount of $25,568.02 which it alleged was due it as the difference between the award and a deposit of $56,429.66 which it had delivered to Noonan during the pendency of the arbitration proceedings in order to obtain a continuance of one of the hearings. Noonan in its answer alleged on the contrary that the $56,429.66 was a partial payment on account and left a balance in dispute which was decided by the award. Curiously enough, Noonan filed no counterclaim for the recovery of the amount of the award.

The district judge held that the dispute whether the sum of $56,429.66 was a deposit or a payment on account raised a material question of fact and he therefore denied Noonan's motion for summary judgment. In doing so, however, he ordered sua sponte that the award be resubmitted to the arbitrators for clarification of its meaning. For his power to do this the district judge relied on ยง 11 of the Arbitration Act of April 25, 1927,*fn2 which authorizes a court on the application of any party to an arbitration to modify and correct an award or resubmit it, "where the award is imperfect in matte of form not affecting the merits of the controversy."*fn3 The court held that the Act of 1927 was applicable because the arbitration clause of the contract provided that it was to be enforceable under the "prevailing arbitration law". Appellant contends that this was error because this was a common law arbitration and that under it the court has no power to resubmit an award to arbitrators for clarification.

In Pennsylvania statutory provisions for arbitration existed as early as 1705*fn4 and 1836.*fn5 Most of the cases on arbitration were decided under these early statutes and local rules of court. They dealt with situations arising after the institution of suit and the submission of the controversy to the decision of an arbitrator or referee, which was then reported to the court much like the verdict of a jury and to which the unsuccessful party could take exceptions.*fn6 There was little arbitration outside these statutes, and as a result the distinction between common law and statutory arbitration, although recognized, was not always noticed so that at times it is difficult to ascertain from some of the reports the specific nature of the proceeding.

In 1927 Pennsylvania adopted with some modifications the Uniform Arbitration Act,*fn7 recommended two years earlier by the Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. The Act provides in general for the enforcement of a provision in any written contract, except a contract for personal services, to settle by arbitration a controversy which may thereafter arise out of the contract and for the enforcement of an agreement in writing to submit an existing controversy to arbitration.*fn8 Because the Act of 1927 makes a number of changes in the earlier practice in arbitration and prescribes grounds for the vacation*fn9 and modification and correction*fn10 of awards by the court*fn11 it has become increasingly important to determine whether a particular arbitration proceeding is subject to the provisions of the Act of 1927 or is to be deemed a common law arbitration. The rule has been reiterated in many recent decisions that the provisions of the Act of 1927 are applicable only if the agreement specifically refers to the Act or there is other evidence justifying the conclusion that both parties agreed either expressly or impliedly that the provisions of the Act should apply. Keller v. Local 249, 423 Pa. 353, 223 A.2d 724 (1966); Wingate Construction Co. v. Schweizer Dipple, Inc., 419 Pa. 74, 213 A.2d 275 (1965); John A. Robbins Co., Inc. v. Airportels, Inc., 418 Pa. 257, 210 A.2d 896 (1965); Freeman v. Ajax Foundry Products, Inc., 398 Pa. 457, 159 A.2d 708 (1960), aff'g 20 Pa.Dist. & Co. R.2d 128 (1959); A. J. Curtis & Co. v. D.W. Falls, Inc., 305 F.2d 811 (3 Cir. 1962).*fn12

The present contract contains no reference to the Act of 1927, and the language of Article 40 that disputes under the contract should be arbitrated in accordance with the existing practice*fn13 of the American Arbitration Association does not indicate the intention of the parties that the provisions of the Act should apply. Nor does the further language that the contract "shall be specifically enforceable under the prevailing arbitration law" bring the arbitration under the Act of 1927. Indeed, in the Robbins, case, supra, where the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that the arbitration was at common law and not under the Act of 1927, the contract contained substantially identical reference to the practice of the American Institute of Architects and to the enforcement of the contract under the prevailing arbitration law.

Since it is clear that the Act of 1927 does not apply and that this was a common law arbitration, the question is whether in such a case the district judge had power to order the award resubmitted for clarification by the arbitrators.

The general principle in a common law arbitration is that the arbitrators are the final judges of both the facts and the law and their decision will not be disturbed for a mistake of fact or of law. P G Metals Co. v. Hofkin, 420 Pa. 620, 218 A.2d 238 (1966). This is one of the fundamental distinctions between common law and statutory arbitration under the Act of 1927. It is presumed that in not providing affirmatively for the application of the Act of 1927 the parties to an arbitration intend the common law principle to prevail. It is an equally fundamental common law principle that once an arbitrator has made and published a final award his authority is exhausted and he is functus officio and can do nothing more in regard to the subject matter of the arbitration.*fn14 The policy which lies behind this is an unwillingness to permit one who is not a judicial officer and who acts informally and sporadically, to re-examine a final decision which he has already rendered, because of the potential evil of outside communication and unilateral influence which might affect a new conclusion. The continuity of judicial office and the tradition which surrounds judicial conduct is lacking in the isolated activity of an arbitrator, although even here the vast increase in the arbitration of labor disputes has created the office of the specialized professional arbitrator. This policy of finality, founded on practical considerations, is nourished by the primitive view of the solemnity of all judgments. From it, reinforced by the enormous fines which King Edward I levied to replenish his treasury on his judges for erasing or altering their records, came the ancient common law rule that a judgment, once enrolled on parchment, was unalterable even for the correction of a manifest mistake.*fn15

The principle that an award once rendered is final contains its own limitation, however, and it therefore has been recognized in common law arbitration that the arbitrator can correct a mistake which is apparent on the face of his award.*fn16 Similarly, where the award does not adjudicate an issue which has been submitted, then as to such issue the arbitrator has not exhausted his function and it remains open to him for subsequent determination. In such a case the arbitrator is not exposed to any greater risk of impropriety than would normally exist during the pendency of the arbitration proceedings, a risk which is inherent in the submission of disputes to nonjudicial determination. The Pennsylvania courts therefore have recognized that an arbitrator may complete a common law arbitration if the award is not complete, even over the objection of one of the parties. Thus, in Frederick v. Margwarth, 221 Pa. 418, 70 A. 797, 18 L.R.A.,N.S., 1246 (1908), plaintiff sued on an award in his favor made by an arbitrator named in a building contract. The court sustained the defense that the award was invalid because it was not coextensive with the submission, since the arbitrator had failed to pass on a number of disputed matters that had been submitted to him. Thereupon the arbitrator, on notice to the parties, went forward with the completion of his award, on which the plaintiff brought a new action. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rejected the defense that the arbitrator's authority ended with the making of the first award. Mr. Justice Fell said: "The rule undoubtedly is that, when an arbitrator has made and delivered his award, the special power conferred upon him ends. But an award must be final, complete, and coextensive with the terms of the submission. The arbitrator, through mistake, failed to consider and decide a part of the dispute submitted to him, and the award was invalid because incomplete. But the agreement was still in force, and it was competent for the arbitrator to finish his work by making a full and complete award. * * *" (221 Pa. at 420, 70 A. at 797). See also William C. Hamilton & Son v. Hart, 125 Pa. 142, 17 A. 226 (1889).

Where the award, although seemingly compete, leaves doubt whether the submission has been fully executed, an ambiguity arises which the arbitrator is entitled to clarify. The resolution of such an ambiguity is not within the policy which forbids an arbitrator to redetermine an issue which he has already decided, for there is no opportunity for redetermination on the merits of what has already been decided. Instead, the clarification of an ambiguity closely resembles the correction of a mistake apparent on the face of the award and the determination of an issue which the arbitrators had failed to decide. Thus, in the present case the arbitrators will act ...

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