José Ramón Villarreal Martínez*

I. Introduction

Several jurisdictions have recorded a rise in lawsuits against international arbitrators and arbitral institutions in national courts (p.13).[1] These cases are occasionally unfounded and may be initiated by disgruntled parties who are dissatisfied with the outcome of an award. They may attempt to file their claims as breaches of public policy or acts of bad faith. This trend has caused a reputational crisis for international arbitration.

The issue is significant because the UNCITRAL Model Law does not specifically cover the matter of arbitrator liability. As a result, each jurisdiction has taken a different approach addressing this issue. In common law countries,[2] arbitrators are granted the same immunity as judges.

In contrast, in jurisdictions that follow a civil law tradition, the role of the arbitrator is considered sui generis. This is because the arbitrator is seen as both a professional service provider and as someone who performs a jurisdictional function akin to a judge. As a result, the arbitrator has certain contractual rights and obligations towards the parties involved. Additionally, the arbitrators are protected by a system of qualified immunity, meaning that they can only be held liable in serious cases, such as when there is gross negligence, fraud, or bad faith.

Nevertheless, even within common law jurisdictions, there is a lack of consistency in the degree of immunity granted. For instance, in the U.S., the arbitrator enjoys absolute immunity, thereby shielding them from civil responsibility claims, even in instances involving fraud, carelessness, or bad faith. In contrast, in England, the arbitrator’s immunity is not absolute: it does not apply if the arbitrator acts in bad faith.

The problem gained significance after a recent news event where the Paris Court of Appeals annulled an award after it was discovered that an arbitrator had publicly acknowledged a personal acquaintance with one of the lawyers involved in the arbitration process, in a eulogy he published in the prestigious French publication Dalloz. The annulment occurred because of a breach of disclosure, which led to concerns about the arbitrator’s impartiality and independence. In qualified immunity jurisdictions,[3] the violation of contractual obligations (failure to deliver a timely award, breaches of the duty of disclosure, and excluding an arbitrator from the deliberations) has been ground to impose liability on the arbitrator.[4]

In contrast, in Grupo Unidos por el Canal S.A. et al. v. Autoridad del Canal de Panama, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, while analyzing the possibility to vacate an award due to an alleged breach of the duty of disclosure by the arbitrators, stated that “[it] is little wonder, and of little concern, that elite members of the small international arbitration community cross paths in their work . . .  [w]e refuse to grant vacatur simply because these people worked together elsewhere.”

An argument can be made that absolute immunity is a potential solution to avoid frivolous claims from being brought against arbitrators. However, this legal doctrine fails to provide arbitrators with the motivation to perform their duties diligently and cautiously. This has resulted in arbitrators avoiding liability, even in cases where they have acted negligently, to the detriment of the parties and the reputation of arbitration.

From my perspective, the United States must shift from absolute to qualified immunity. This move is crucial because it safeguards the arbitrator’s position in making decisions and offers a recourse for parties involved in situations when the arbitrator acts dishonestly, engages in fraudulent behavior, or displays gross negligence. This transition would establish a liability framework that protects the arbitrator’s judicial function and, at the same time, protects parties against arbitrators’ wrongdoing.

The experience in jurisdictions that have implemented qualified immunity shows that only a few successful cases where arbitrators have been held accountable have been reported. For this reason, an acknowledgment of some level of liability of arbitrators contributes to the high standards of quality that are expected from an arbitration procedure.

II. Arbitrator Liability Regimes

The doctrine of judicial immunity, which originated in England in the 17th century in the cases of Floyd v. Barker and The Marshalsea, has been adopted by common law jurisdictions. However, the degree of immunity adopted by each of them is different.

The doctrine of judicial immunity states that judges are not legally liable for any potential harm resulting from their judgments. The purpose of this doctrine is to uphold the reliability of the judicial system by allowing judges to render decisions without undue pressure by the parties. In the U.S., arbitrators are granted absolute immunity; in England, this immunity allows an exception in cases of bad faith.

In contrast, civil law countries acknowledge that arbitrators carry out their role through a contract, functioning as professional service providers. To safeguard the arbitrator, these jurisdictions have established a sui generis approach[5] that acknowledges both the judicial role of the arbitrator and his contractual duties.

The sui generis approach has established a form of qualified immunity, whereby the arbitrator is protected from liability for his jurisdictional role, while also safeguarding the parties involved from any unjustified infringements that arbitrators may commit, which could be considered as contractual violations.

III. The Liability of Arbitrators in the U.S.

Within legal systems based on common law, the principle of judicial immunity extends to arbitrators and other individuals who carry out adjudicatory duties. In the U.S., the doctrine of absolute immunity for arbitrators was initially acknowledged in Jones v Brown and further affirmed by the Supreme Court in Butz v Economou. This doctrine provides arbitrators with absolute immunity from legal claims, even in situations of extreme carelessness, and intentional dishonesty.

While the rationale for granting absolute immunity to arbitrators is based on their adjudicatory role, it is indisputable that there are more disparities than similarities between judges and arbitrators, as Pierre Lalive suggests:

One should hesitate to assimilate the position of the arbitrator to that of a judge. In any case, the reasons seem obvious to exclude an assimilation, and even an analogy, between a judge and arbitrator. First a judge is in no way chosen by the agreement of the parties (…) Secondly, when exercising their judicial function, State judges exercise power authority conferred by the State and in its own name.

To sum up, the differences between the function, activity, position and status of a judge on the one hand, and those of an arbitrator on the other, are so great that no sufficient analogy can be drawn between the two which can possibly justify the immunity of the arbitrator.

Consequently, arbitrators bear a closer resemblance to professional service providers rather than judges. For this reason, an absolute degree of immunity fails to motivate arbitrators to adhere to the utmost standards of care and thoroughness.

The absolute immunity approach is problematic for its failure to acknowledge the contractual nature of the arbitrator’s role. Also, it disregards that professionals from analogous fields may be held accountable for civil liability if they incur in a breach of contract.

As Lorena Malintoppi declares:

There is no question that arbitrators and arbitral institutions should be held liable if they commit gross negligence, or act in bad faith. Needless to say, arbitrators are bound to act fairly, to respect due process and the integrity of the proceedings, to ensure the efficiency of the process, and avoid delays. It is also universally accepted that arbitrators have the duty to be impartial and independent and to disclose for the duration of the arbitral proceedings any facts or circumstances that may put into question their capacity to decide a dispute independently and impartially.

Furthermore, “[n]ot only does absolute immunity yield bad results as a matter of policy, but the doctrine also rests on shaky legal foundations . . . [d]espite its dubiousness, the doctrine or arbitral immunity has gone largely unquestioned.” Notwithstanding these concerns, most courts in the U.S. have blindly adhered to it.

From my perspective, it is necessary for the U.S. to transition from the absolute immunity doctrine to qualified immunity. Under this approach, the arbitrator would be allowed absolute immunity for his adjudicatory role but would also be considered a professional service provider who may be held accountable for negligence, bad faith, or misconduct.

IV. The Transition to Qualified Immunity

Although the idea of absolute immunity of arbitrators has been widely accepted in the U.S., the California Court of Appeal in Baar v Tigerman deviated from this doctrine and refused to apply it to an arbitrator, who had failed to deliver a timely award.

While the absolute immunity doctrine is unquestioningly implemented in the U.S., this was the first instance where a court specifically highlighted that arbitrators are immune from liability in their jurisdictional role, and that the refusal to issue an award is separate from the decision-making process. While American case law has firmly established the application of the absolute immunity doctrine for arbitrators, this precedent has sparked research and debate over the possibility to transition from absolute to qualified immunity, a discussion that has been abandoned in recent years.

In addition, debate over arbitrators’ civil liability is crucial for effective arbitration, since absolute immunity may hinder diligence and good faith. It is also a bad policy to shield people who willfully engage in bad faith or gross negligence, such as not delivering a timely award or disclosing conflicts of interest. As Susan Frank suggests, “[o]verly broad immunity fails to create an incentive for arbitrators to be responsible for their actions, to the parties who are paying fees, or to the integrity of the international arbitration system.”

For that reason, other common law countries such as England have transitioned from the absolute immunity doctrine towards a qualified approach, by recognizing in Section 29 (1) of the Arbitration Act of 1996 that “[a]n arbitrator is not liable for anything done or omitted in the discharge or purported discharge of his functions as arbitrator unless the act or omission is shown to have been in bad faith.” Also, in England, an arbitrator is immune in all the activities that involve a judicial function; however, “this immunity . . . [does not] have anything like the same force when applied to professional men when they are not fulfilling a judicial function.

Although absolute immunity is conceded to arbitrators as a public policy measure, absolute immunity should not protect arbitrators when they voluntarily engage in bad faith or other misconduct. The reason for concern lies not only in its impact on the arbitration’s outcome, but also in its detrimental effect on the reputation of arbitration as a viable alternative to court litigation.

V. Reasons to Advocate for Qualified Immunity

Even though other common law jurisdictions have transitioned to qualified immunity, I view Baar v Tigerman as a precedent that has the potential to ignite the discussion on qualified immunity. This is because qualified immunity acknowledges the contractual nature of an arbitrator’s appointment, wherein the arbitrator assumes rights and responsibilities by consenting to deliver a fair and enforceable award. Additionally, qualified immunity also safeguards arbitrators when they carry out judicial duties, while ensuring that they are held responsible for their lack of care in fulfilling their contractual obligations.

There is a concern that if qualified immunity is adopted as a matter of public policy, because arbitrators, unlike judges, are vulnerable to “(1) unhappy parties [that] might threaten arbitrators, or (2) arbitrators might not make principled decisions if they are concerned about being sued,” nevertheless, these policy justifications are insufficient to support absolute immunity; however, there is evidence in that qualified immunity will not threat the impartiality or independence of arbitrators, since “the number of successful cases brought against arbitrators and institutions is limited. A French study (…) identified five cases since 1804 where arbitrators were found liable by the French courts: one for untimely resignation, twice for lack of independence and impartiality, and twice for excessive delays.

In England, since the Arbitration Act of 1996 “there have been no reported English cases which have interpreted the bad faith requirement in Section 29 . . . Bad faith is a deliberately high threshold, and this carve-out seeks to strike the balance between immunity and permissible recourse for parties in respect of egregious arbitrator behaviour.”

Thus, based on the experience of France and England, it can be inferred that qualified immunity does not pose a risk to the impartiality and independence of arbitrators; rather, it supports these qualities because it imposes a “balance that addresses the courts’ dual concerns: protecting the public from possible arbitrator abuse and providing arbitrators with immunity to ensure independent decision making . . . [q]ualified immunity would hold arbitrators accountable when arbitrator.”

VI. Conclusion

The advantage of transitioning from absolute to qualified immunity is that the latter recognizes the sui generis legal relationship that exists between the arbitrator and the parties, where the arbitrator is chosen by a contract to perform an adjudicatory function. In addition, qualified immunity safeguards arbitrators when they carry out judicial duties, while also ensuring that they are held responsible for any wrongdoing committed in bad faith or negligence.

A flaw of the absolute immunity approach is that it ignores that the parties, when they chose an arbitrator, have a reasonable expectation that the arbitrator will remain impartial, independent and that he will fulfil his duties (contractual and adjudicatory) in good faith. Moreover, “their acceptance of the arbitral risk did not cover the case of fraud, of corruption, nor (it would seem), cases of gross and inexcusable negligence. But it did cover, or include the possibility of mistakes in law and legal procedure . . . there is no justification for the immunity of the arbitrators, especially when it is based on the misconceived assimilation to the status of judges.”

Another critique of absolute immunity is that it grants protection to arbitrators based on a misunderstood policy argument to protect them from undue pressure from the parties, and to provide them legal certainty that they will be immune from civil liability claims. Even when the reason behind this argument is true, and that it is undeniable that without some degree of immunity fewer professionals would accept to be appointed as an arbitrator, there is no justification to shield arbitrators in cases of bad faith or gross negligence.

As Dario Alessi suggests:

No law of contract would allow the gross unfairness of exempting a party to a contract from liability because of some policy argument. In particular, the independence of arbitrators may not be obtained at the expense of fairness, producing impunity for breach of obligations that the arbitrators have freely assumed. (…) The unpleasant effects of liability of arbitrators which may occur, such as a risk of vexatious litigation, collateral disputes or harassing lawsuits, cannot as such justify the denial of the right to enforce the promises of arbitrators.

In addition, it is also a good policy to provide the parties of an arbitration a remedy in case that the arbitrator acts in bad faith (such as deliberatively not disclosing conflicts of interest) or in cases of fraud or gross negligence. At the international stage the trend is to improve the current standards about impartiality and independence applicable to arbitrators, evidence of this tendency is the recent publication of the IBA Guidelines of Conflicts of Interest in International Arbitration 2024, that was updated to incorporate “the best current international practice . . . [t]he General Standards and the Application Lists are based upon statutes, practices, and case law and other decisions in a cross-section of jurisdictions, and upon the judgment and experience of the main participants in international arbitration.”

While international arbitration is imposing stricter standards to arbitrators, the U.S. lags behind the international trend by granting explicitly immunity to arbitrators that fail to disclose conflicts of interests, as it is recognized in Section 14 of the Uniform Arbitration Act. There current approach in the U.S. towards the liability of the arbitrator fails to  “balance the various interests of parties, counsel, arbitrators, and arbitration institutions, all of whom have a responsibility for ensuring the integrity, reputation, and efficiency of international arbitration.

To promote the adoption of qualified immunity in the U.S., I consider it necessary to adopt qualified immunity through legislation at state level, and to implement it in the Uniform Arbitration Act, since it does not seem likely[6] that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that modifies the existing status quo.[7] As M. Rasmussen says, “because large sophisticated parties would not forego their access to national courts without carefully exploring the advantages and disadvantages of the process, they must perceive that the advantages of arbitration outweigh the disadvantages.”

In addition, the transition to “contractual liability, would increase transparency, accountability, independence, impartiality, and integrity in the arbitral process. Henceforth, international arbitration would enjoy greater recognition and public confidence,” a transition to qualified immunity will help arbitration to overcome its actual reputational crisis.

*Facultad Libre de Derecho de Monterrey (LLB), Escuela Libre de Derecho (LLM), University of Southern California, Gould School of Law (LLM), Harvard Extension School (ALM Government candidate). The author specializes in civil, commercial litigation, and commercial arbitration in Mexico. I’m grateful to Roberto Cuchí Olabuenaga for his comments in early drafts, and to the members of the editorial board of the HILJ-HIALSA for their work in preparing this piece for publication. All errors are my own.

[1] The report found that “…The multiplication of parallel or subsequent litigation in arbitration proceedings, some of which is directed against arbitrators, is a recent trend that reflects a break from consensus. It therefore appeared necessary for the authors of this report to draw up the current state of arbitrators disciplinary, civil and criminal liability…”

[2] Such as England and the United States. As one pair of authors have commented, “…The immunity of arbitrators is predicted upon the generally accepted proposition that they enjoy quasi-judicial status. It has its basis in the fact that the functions performed by arbitrators, who are chosen by the parties, can be compared to the acts performed by judges…”(p.951).

[3] E.g. France and Spain. Article 21.1. of the Spanish Act 60/2003 of 23 December on Arbitration, declares that “[a]cceptance requires arbitrators and, as appropriate, the tribunal institution, to comply with their commission in good faith. If they fail to do so, they will be liable for any damages resulting from bad faith, recklessness or mens rea. In arbitration commissioned from an institution, the damaged party may file suit directly against it, irrespective of any action for indemnity lodged against arbitrators.”

[4] Thomas Clay, El Árbitro [The Arbitrator] 123 (Grupo Ed. Ibañez, Claudia Patricia Cáceres Cáceres Trans. 2012).

[5] Gary B. Born, Rights and Duties of International Arbitrators, in International Commercial Arbitration (3rd ed. 2021) (updated online only 2024). For this author, “…The proper analysis is to treat the arbitrator´s contract as a sui generis agreement. That is in part because this characterization accords with the specialized and distinct nature of the arbitrator´s mandate . . . differs in fundamental ways from the provision of many other services and consists in the performance of a relatively sui generis adjudicatory function…”

[6] Due to the actual composition of the Supreme Court.

[7] On March 25th 2024, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari in Grupo Unidos, et al. v. Autoridad del Canal de Panama.

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