Large employers and corporations have been pushing arbitration as the panacea for a host of consumer issues, from purchasing phone plans and automobiles to applying for jobs. But, there are some things arbitration just cannot do. In 2012, Lance Armstrong admitted he had used drugs as part of his training regimen. But, for years before his admission, he had successfully fought those allegations. In fact, he even took to arbitration in 2006 one sponsor, SCA Promotions, for a $5 million bonus saying there was no proof that he had doped. The sponsor had refused to pay the bonus because the allegations were so strong. The arbitration panel eventually awarded the cyclist a total of $7.5 million – based on a settlement reached by SCA and Mr. Armstrong.
After Mr. Armstrong’s admissions in 2012, SCA asked the same arbitration panel to re-convene and order Armstrong to pay back the money. The panel did so and awarded SCA Promotions $10 million as a sanction. But, the panel of arbitrators is not a court. There is a very complicated, robust scheme for awarding sanctions in the judicial system. Arbitration is not part of the judicial system. Arbitration is based on contract. The parties must agree to arbitration. Arbitrations are supposed to be limited to the terms of the parties’ agreement. Lance Armstrong did not sign any agreement allowing possible sanctions as part of an arbitration award. It would be rare for any arbitration agreement to address even the remotest possibility of sanctions.
The panel found jurisdiction based on Mr. Armstrong coming to them twice before seeking relief. The majority panel pointed to the decision in Nielsen S.A. v. Animal Feeds International Corp., 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010) for the finding that prior use of the panel amounts to continued use of the panel. The majority also pointed to an “implied covenant to cooperate” and to Mr. Armstrong’s bad faith. So, the majority awarded that the $7.5 million be repaid to SCA, $2 million in attorney fees, and $500,000 in “additional costs insusceptible of precise calculations” (say what? I can just imagine if I tried to ask a court for $5,000 in “additional costs insusceptible of precise calculations”).
One arbitrator on the panel dissented. Ted Lyon pointed to the 2006 settlement agreement between the parties that specifically provided the intent of the parties was to “fully and forever” resolve their differences. See Louisiana Bar Journal, vol. 63, no. 2 (Aug./Sept., 2015).
And, now SCA is seeking a declaratory action in a Texas court seeking recognition of the award. There is no legal precedent for this reconsideration of a prior award. In a traditional court, SCA would seek reconsideration based on new evidence. The new evidence would be Lance Armstrong’s very public confessions. The party would have a good chance of getting the settlement reversed. But, what happens when the “judicial system” is based on contract? The parties did not agree to sanctions. Arbitration was created in the nineteenth century for shipping companies to deal with the vagaries of international courts – or the lack of any courts. Now, these parties are trying to morph a system based on contract into a judicial system.
This reminds me of the old saw often heard in criminal court, “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” The saw refers to defendants who whine about his/her punishment. It means do not whine. We need a new saw for arbitration agreements, “if you don’t like the result, don’t sign the agreement.” SCA paid the bonus under the original agreement. SCA drafted the agreement to pay the bonus to Lance Armstrong. It was SCA who chose arbitration initially, not Lance Armstrong. But, now SCA is trying to turn arbitration into a full-blown court of law. Now,the company has second thoughts…..