Presiding Justice Turner Respectfully Dissents.
The Fifth Circuit, Division Two, holds that because a law firm’s cause of action to compel arbitration with its client “admitted the existence of a binding agreement to arbitrate the fee dispute, the trial court’s jurisdiction over the merits of plaintiff’s claims was initially limited to a determination of the gateway issue of arbitrability.” Cox, Castle & Nicholson, LP v. Wan et al., B262017 (2/5 6/23/16) ((Kumar [judge of the superior court], author, Baker, concurring); Turner (dissenting)) (unpublished). Alternatively, plaintiff was judicially estopped from seeking default judgments because it “admitted in its complaint that the fee dispute was subject to binding arbitration and defendants relied to their detriment on that admission.” As a result, plaintiff was not allowed to pursue defaults, and an order denying defendants’ motion to vacate and the default judgments were reversed.
This case has a somewhat unusual procedural history. It was originally argued on October 8, 2015, when Justice Richard Mosk was a member of the panel. Because Justice Mosk was unable to further participate, the Court vacated the submission, and appointed Judge Kumar to the panel. Letter briefs were submitted on the issue of judicial estoppel on March 22 and 25, 2016. Justice Mosk died on April 17, 2016. On March 30, 2016, the case was re-argued, and on June 23, 2016, the unpublished opinion was filed.
The majority conclusion that the cause of action to compel arbitration constituted “a binding agreement to arbitrate,” and stripped the Court of jurisdiction, may not be intuitively obvious, given that the cause of action, unlike a free-standing petition to arbitrate, was not verified, did not include evidence, and was denied in an answer, which, however, was only lodged and not filed, because a default had occurred. Furthermore, in other cases, the existence of an arbitration agreement has not resulted in a loss of jurisdiction. At least, the majority conclusion was not obvious to Justice Turner, who penned a pithy dissent.
Presiding Justice Turner’s dissent made several points: first, that existence of an arbitration agreement does not preclude a party from pursuing claims (citing Brock v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, 10 Cal.App.4th 1790, 1795 (1992) and cases in accord); second, that the cause of action did not accrue, because plaintiff failed to allege that defendants refused to arbitrate – a necessary element; third, that the record was inadequate, because there was no transcript; fourth, that the defendants were not artless rubes, as one was a certified public accountant, and the other a licensed realtor; and finally, that there were questions of credibility, leading to Justice Turner’s belief that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to set aside the default.
Though the case is unpublished, today’s post in California Attorney’s Fees rightly observes: “This decision, if correct, counsels that plaintiffs carefully think about whether they should include an arbitration claim in a complaint; otherwise, the trial court may not be able to proceed on the merits.” So be aware of another trap for the unwary.
Given that there is a majority opinion and a dissent, we wonder whether the case will be appealed. As far as the parties themselves are concerned, this may be a tempest in a teacup, for if the lawsuit does not proceed further in the trial court, the parties could end up in arbitration. And there is always the option to settle . . .