As an arbitrator located in Southern Florida, I am often asked to explain the arbitration process. Today’s trial practice requires that attorneys be familiar with the most common forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). These include mediation and arbitration. It is rare to find a trial practitioner who does not appreciate the value of arbitration. In this article, I will explain arbitration and its procedures in Florida.

What is Arbitration in Florida?

Arbitration, which is being rediscovered and is increasingly being used, is not nearly as commonplace as mediation. Arbitration has been in use for more than 1000 years. Historians believe it was first used by merchants from different countries trading with each other. Neither understood nor trusted the other’s legal system, or their own for that matter and developed arbitration as a means of resolving disputes fairly.

Arbitration results in a decision and lawyers and their clients must be cautious in agreeing to arbitration and knowledgeable about the arbitration procedure in order to obtain the best results.

Some of the reasons for using arbitration include the belief that it is both faster and less expensive than litigation in the civil courts. The more experienced the trial lawyer is with arbitration, the more likely the above is true. Rule 1.820 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure embodies this belief by requiring that the arbitration hearing is conducted informally, that the presentation of testimony is kept to a minimum and that facts and issues are to be presented primarily through documents and the statement and argument of counsel.

(a) Authority of the Chief Arbitrator. The chief arbitrator shall have authority to commence and adjourn the arbitration hearing and carry out other such duties as are prescribed by section 44.103, Florida Statutes. The chief arbitrator shall not have authority to hold any person in contempt or to in any way impose sanctions against any person.

(b) Conduct of the Arbitration Hearing.

(1) The chief judge of each judicial circuit shall set procedures for determining the time and place of the arbitration hearing and may establish other procedures for the expeditious and orderly operation of the arbitration hearing to the extent such procedures are not in conflict with any rules of court.

(2) Hearing procedures shall be included in the notice of arbitration hearing sent to the parties and arbitration panel.

(3) Individual parties or authorized representatives of corporate parties shall attend the arbitration hearing unless excused in advance by the chief arbitrator for good cause shown.

(c) Rules of Evidence. The hearing shall be conducted informally. Presentation of testimony shall be kept to a minimum, and matters shall be presented to the arbitrator(s) primarily through the statements and arguments of counsel.

(d) Orders. The chief arbitrator may issue instructions as are necessary for the expeditious and orderly conduct of the hearing. The chief arbitrator’s instructions are not appealable. Upon notice to all parties the chief arbitrator may apply to the presiding judge for orders directing compliance with such instructions. Instructions enforced by a court order are appealable as are other orders of the court.

(e) Default of a Party. When a party fails to appear at a hearing, the chief arbitrator may proceed with the hearing and the arbitration panel shall render a decision based upon the facts and circumstances as presented by the parties present.

(f) Record and Transcript. Any party may have a record and transcript made of the arbitration hearing at that party’s expense.

(g) Completion of the Arbitration Process.

(1) Arbitration shall be completed within 30 days of the first arbitration hearing unless extended by order of the court on motion of the chief arbitrator or of a party. No extension of time shall be for a period exceeding 60 days from the date of the first arbitration hearing.

(2) Upon the completion of the arbitration process, the arbitrator(s) shall render a decision. In the case of a panel, a decision shall be final upon a majority vote of the panel.

(3) Within 10 days of the final adjournment of the arbitration hearing, the arbitrator(s) shall notify the parties, in writing, of their decision. The arbitration decision may set forth the issues in controversy and the arbitrator (‘s)(s’) conclusions and findings of fact and law. The arbitrator(‘s)(s’) decision and the originals of any transcripts shall be sealed and filed with the clerk at the time the parties are notified of the decision.

(h) Time for Filing Motion for Trial. Any party may file a motion for trial. If a motion for trial is filed by any party, any party having a third-party claim at issue at the time of arbitration may file a motion for trial within 10 days of service of the first motion for trial. If a motion for trial is not made within 20 days of service on the parties of the decision, the decision shall be referred to the presiding judge, who shall enter such orders and judgments as may be required to carry out the terms of the decision as provided by section 44.103(5), Florida Statutes.

What is the Process of Arbitration in Florida?

Setting the stage. In Florida, even if there is no arbitration agreement in place that legally necessitates the use of arbitration to resolve a dispute, the parties involved in a dispute can voluntarily agree to participate in binding arbitration.

Once it is established, either voluntarily or through contractual obligation, that arbitration is to be utilized, the parties may need to agree on certain aspects of the procedure. For example, they may choose to utilize a single neutral arbitrator or a tribunal of arbitrators. They may decide to adhere to the standard American Arbitration Association rules of procedure, or they may choose to customize the procedure and rules to suit their unique dispute and circumstances.

Once all procedural elements are defined and agreed upon, the case can proceed to arbitrator selection.

Arbitrator selection. One of the key benefits of arbitration is the ability to select a neutral arbitrator who is knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand in your dispute. With arbitration, you can select someone who specializes in the area to help ensure a fair judgment. Generally speaking, arbitrators will be selected from a pre-approved list of neutral candidates. Once they are selected, a preliminary hearing will be held to finalize the procedural elements of the case and facilitate what can and cannot be included in the arbitration hearing such as witnesses and evidence.

Additionally, there may or may not be a discovery period prior to the hearing where all parties involved will be required to share their evidence and other information with opposing parties. The extent and rules of the discovery period will likely depend on your arbitration agreement or the terms you settled upon when you voluntarily agreed to arbitrate.

The hearing. Arbitration hearings are much less formal than litigation hearings in that their location and scheduling are much more flexible. Not unlike a trial, each party will have opportunities to present their case to the arbitrator(s). If agreed upon, witnesses may be called to offer testimony and present whatever evidence they may have. Conversely, the opposing parties will be able to question and challenge the witnesses and evidence presented.

Once the hearing is complete, the arbitrator(s) will retire in order to deliberate. In some cases, attorneys for either party may be allowed to submit post-hearing documentation to further support their case or challenge actions taken by the opposing party.

The award. Finally, the arbitrator(s) will issue a decision and dictate an award. Unlike mediation, the decision will be considered binding with very limited recourse for any sort of appeal. The parties will be required by law to adhere to the terms of the arbitrators’ decision since Florida courts recognize a presumption of enforcement of arbitration. The courts will, however, review the case to ensure there was no fraud or misconduct at play.

Arbitration is a quicker and less expensive option than litigation. Should you be involved in a dispute, you will need an experienced arbitrator, contact Carlton Mediation.