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Arbitration War Stories (third) – Arbitration or Court?

In my first two posts on arbitration (here and here), I told a couple of war stories about what goes on behind the scenes in arbitration – what I called the “sausage factory.” To close this series, here are some general observations on arbitration.

Should I include an arbitration clause in a contract?

This can be a difficult question, with pros and cons on either side, and no obvious answer. And, since arbitration is typically in the “boilerplate” section of a contract it often receives little attention during a negotiation. This can be made worse if the lawyer guiding a client is a contracts or corporate lawyer that has had little or no personal experience with arbitration, which is often the case.

Pros of Arbitration

It Can Be Fast and Private. The key factor favoring arbitration is speed. It’s faster, almost always faster than a court case, which can take years to go to trial and can then be appealed by the losing party, stretching the process out even further. In Massachusetts it can take three years or more for a case to go to trial in state court. Add another year for appeal.

These delays can drive litigants crazy, and arbitration short-circuits this. It’s also private (if the agreement stipulates this), which can be appealing to a business that may be concerned about having its reputation harmed by public court proceedings.

Cons of Arbitration

However, when weighing the desire for a speedy resolution you need to take a few things into consideration.

It Can Be Expensive. Arbitrators are almost always lawyers, and you are paying for the arbitrator’s time, usually at his or her hourly rate. The parties split the cost, but it still has the potential to be more expensive than state or federal court. And where there is a panel of three arbitrators (as was the case in the two war stories I told in previous posts), the parties are paying three hourly rates. Assume $450/hour (a reasonable estimate in Massachusetts) and one hour of hearings, deliberations or phone conferences to discuss a procedural matter or discovery dispute will cost the parties $1,350.

In my experience, on three-person panels all of the arbitrators weigh in on everything that comes up in the case, no matter how minor. This includes scheduling orders, discovery disputes and any other minor issue. The parties have no control over this.

The American Arbitration Association (AAA) asks each arbitrator to estimate their fees at the beginning of each case, and arbitrators tend to overestimate their fees – better to overestimate and surprise on the downside than the opposite. However, this can result in a large upfront bill to the parties, who can’t be confident that they’ll get a refund at the end of the case.

Add to this fees of the company administering the arbitration, such as the AAA, and the expense is even higher.

I had a case last year in which an individual filed arbitration against a well-financed corporation. The case called for a three-person panel and senior, expensive (the other two, not me) arbitrators were appointed. It was obvious that the individual plaintiff would have a difficult time paying a three-person panel in a complex business dispute that would involve discovery disputes, thorny legal issues, dispositive motions and what was expected to be a five day hearing. Indeed, the case settled early on. I suspect that the anticipated arbitration costs were a factor in that settlement.

A court case, by contrast, costs nothing more than the filing fee.

Arbitrators are Not Bound to Follow the Law. How many people or companies, when negotiating an agreement that contains an arbitration clause, are told by their contract lawyers that in the event of a dispute an arbitrator can pretty much disregard the law and the facts, and that you have no right of appeal? Very few, I suspect.

Under the law of Massachusetts and under federal law, an arbitrator cannot be reversed by a court for failing to follow the law. The only possible exception to this is the so-called “manifest disregard” doctrine – an arbitrator may be reversed by a court when she decides a case in “manifest disregard” of the law.

However, this is a controversial doctrine which has been repudiated in some states and federal circuits. In any event it is difficult to establish that an arbitrator has acted with “manifest disregard” of the law. Cases reversing an arbitration award based on “manifest disregard” are exceedingly rare, and usually are accompanied by some form of overt misbehavior by the arbitrator.

The bottom line: if you elect arbitration you are pretty much at the mercy of the arbitrator with no right of appeal.

Where Does This Leave the Decision of Arbitration or Court?

In earlier posts I told a couple of war stories where, arguably, arbitrators acted improperly. But it’s my experience that the vast majority of arbitrators act properly and do everything they can to decide a case within the law and the facts. That said, you can never fully discount the risk that you’ll get an arbitrator who harbors a hidden bias or who may disregard the law.

Therefore, I would advise choosing a 3-person panel over a single arbitrator if you (or the party you’re representing or advising), can handle the additional cost — the 3-person panel reduces the power of a renegade arbitrator of the sort that I described in my second “war stories” post.

But I would never recommend a 3-person panel in which one arbitrator is neutral and the other two are retained by (and beholden to) the parties, as described in my first war story post. The attorneys for the parties can argue the case, and they don’t need “insider” arbitrators to argue the case a second time.

Good luck!

Arbitration War Stories (second) – Return to the Sausage Factory

Arbitration War Stories (second) – Return to the Sausage Factory

The second arbitration anecdote I’d like to share (see my first “sausage factory” anecdote here) involved, once again, a 3-person arbitration panel. The case arose out of a manufacturer-distributor relationship.

Here’s how the business worked.

The high-priced hardware product at issue was sold to businesses via a national network of dealers, and the dealers often encountered price competition from competing manufacturers of this type of product. If a dealer lowered its price to meet the competition, it reduced its profit margin. To give dealers an incentive to compete in those situations the manufacturer would lower its price to the dealer if the manufacturer received written certification, via fax, documenting the price competition. This allowed the dealer to maintain its profit margin, and the manufacturer took the hit to profits.

The manufacturer discovered that one dealer had been falsely representing price competition on a large scale for several years. The manufacturer brought an arbitration case against the dealer seeking to recover the profits it had lost as a result of this fraud. I was one of three arbitrators on the case. I’ll call myself Arbitrator 1 and the other two arbitrators Arbitrators 2 and 3. All three of us were lawyers with many years of experience.

There was a two-day hearing (arbitration-speak for a trial), and as it turned out the dealer didn’t have much of a defense. One defense theory asserted by the dealer’s lawyers was that the manufacturer’s sales people had encouraged this practice, presumably to encourage sales and pump up their commissions. However, it was unable to present even a shred of evidence to support this – no testimony, no documents, nothing. Of course, in a trial what the lawyers say is not evidence – evidence is the testimony of witnesses and documents.

When the panel met to decide the case, to my surprise Arbitrator 3 said that he was experienced with commission sales people in situations like this, and he believed that the manufacturer’s sales people had encouraged the fraud. Therefore, he argued, the dealer should win the case.

Arbitrator 2 and I pointed out that this might be true in some situations, but we couldn’t reach this conclusion when there was no evidence to support it in this case. Arbitrator 3 became angry with us and said that in that case he would not join in the award. He stormed out of the conference room (leaving Arbitrator 2 and myself with mouths agape), and we didn’t hear from him again before deciding this case. The two of us went ahead and issued the award for the manufacturer.

What struck me in this case was that Arbitrator 3 was willing to decide the case based on his personal experience, even though there was no evidence that what Arbitrator 3 claimed he had seen elsewhere had occurred here. Although a jury might conceivably do this, a competent, trained judge never would, and I felt that a party in an arbitration should expect no less.

Imagine if the arbitration agreement at issue had called for a single arbitrator and the sole arbitrator had been Arbitrator 3. The distributor would have won based on the preconceptions that Arbitrator 3 brought to the case. The arbitration agreement didn’t call for a “reasoned award” (most don’t, given the extra expense involved), and the manufacturer would never have known why it lost.

I believe that parties to arbitration should be able to count on arbitrators relying on the evidence put before them, and not have an arbitrator make it up, as Arbitrator 3 did in this case. Often the evidence is in dispute, and an arbitrator (like a judge or jury) has to evaluate credibility. But for an arbitrator to decide a case where there is no evidence to support the arbitrator’s theory, is simply wrong. And, as I’ll discuss in my next (and final) post in this series, there’s nothing to stop an arbitrator from doing that. If you elect arbitration you may encounter a situation like this, and even worse you may never know it.

What’s my take-away from this? You never know what you don’t know going into an arbitration. You may believe (or your lawyer may tell you) that you have a good case, a strong case, a great case, even a “can’t lose” case (no lawyer should ever tell a client this!), but in arbitration you just don’t know. So if you’re a client heading for an arbitration hearing, and your lawyer tells you it’s the strongest case s/he’s ever seen, with an 80% likelihood of success, maybe you should discount that to 70%, and factor that adjustment into your settlement strategy.

In the last post in this three-part series on arbitration I’ll provide a few observations about the decision whether or not to include an arbitration clause in a contract.

Arbitration War Stories (first)

Arbitration War Stories (first)

The thing to fear is not the law, but the judge”  Russian Proverb

I’ve been arbitrating legal disputes since the early 2000s. Here is the first of a couple of anecdotes I’ll share. I am referring here to my experience as the arbitrator, not an attorney arguing a case before an arbitrator. 

My cases have varied enormously, from huge multimillion dollar disputes to relatively small cases involving under a hundred thousand dollars. You might think that when I look back on these cases I have interesting stories about the lawyers and the clients, but that’s almost never the case. My most vivid memories involve my co-arbitrators on 3-person arbitration panels. This is where I’ve seen the most surprising aspects of human nature. In this post I’ll describe one of these, and leave other cases for future posts. I’ve slightly disguised the parties and facts so that they would not be recognizable, even to the parties, but they maintain the essence of the case.

The case was a David Inc. v. Goliath Inc. arbitration that involved complex patent and trade secret misappropriation claims by David. The arbitration panel was unusual, in my experience – the parties agreed on a single neutral, and each party retained their own arbitrator who was, in effect, their advocate on the panel. So, it was a three-person panel with one neutral arbitrator, one arbitrator chosen by David and one chosen by Goliath. My “client” was Goliath Inc., the defendant (or in arbitration-speak, the “respondent”). There were no restrictions on my meeting with Goliath’s attorneys during the hearings – indeed, I had lunch with them every day of the hearings, and advised them on how I thought their case was proceeding. I assume the same was true of David Inc.’s chosen panel member. In this case David was seeking approximately $200 million in damages.

The hearings lasted about 20 days, spread out over several months. At the close of the case it was clear that the “neutral” thought that David had put on a very weak case. However, he insisted that David was entitled to an award of around $2 million, one percent of what it was seeking in damages. I disagreed, to the point that I told the neutral that I would not join in the $2 million award. I felt that the proposed award was legally defective, and that the neutral was wrong on the law in reaching it. I thought it was a “sympathy award” by the neutral – give David (and likely it’s contingent fee attorneys), something that they could perhaps break-even on in terms of fees and expenses.

At a meeting with the neutral and “David’s” lawyer I told them that although I would not write a dissent to the “reasoned award” the parties had requested that the panel prepare, neither would I join in the award. In other words, two of the arbitrators would sign the award, which would be legally sufficient for it to be fully enforceable. A couple of days later the neutral arbitrator called me one-on-one and told me that if I would not join in the award he would increase the damages against “my party” – Goliath – by millions of dollars. I was shocked, but I had no choice but to go along with what I viewed as little more than blackmail.  I joined in the award, and I never told my party about this call. 

What was the neutral’s motive for strong-arming me like this? I believe that given the size of the case and its complexity he wanted a three-person award, to avoid any chance it might be successfully challenged in court – he wanted a 100% appeal-proof award. End of my story. I hope it provides some insight into what can go on inside the “sausage factory” of an arbitration panel. 

A final word on this case – I’ve never been on a “one-neutral, two-advocate” arbitration panel before or since, and I would advise against it. The neutral arbitrator is unlikely to be swayed one way or the other by the “party arbitrators” (after all, the lawyers for the parties do that job). In fact, as I will discuss in another post, I would stay away from 3-person panels altogether, except in cases where the economics of a potential dispute justify it.

Will the Supreme Court Decide Oracle v. Google on a Technicality?

Will the Supreme Court Decide Oracle v. Google on a Technicality?

Will the Supreme Court dodge the thorny copyright infringement issues in the long-running (ten year) Oracle v. Google case on a technicality? The case was originally scheduled to be argued in March 2020, but after Covid-19 it was deferred to the 2020-21 term. Then, on May 4, 2020 the Court ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs:

“The parties are directed to file supplemental letter briefs addressing the appropriate standard of review for the second question presented, including but not limited to the implications of the Seventh Amendment, if any, on that standard. The briefs, not to exceed 10 pages, are to be filed simultaneously with the Clerk and served upon opposing counsel on or before 2 p.m., Friday, August 7, 2020.”

The “second question presented” is Google’s appeal of the Federal Circuit’s 2018 decision reversing a trial jury’s fair use finding in favor of Google. The “standard of review” is a reference to the “de novo” standard used by the Federal Circuit in the opinion under review. The Seventh Amendment is the constitutional right to a jury trial (“the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States …”).

The Court gave the parties a long time to write those ten pages – three months. (Oracle’s Brief, Google’s Brief). Now that August 7, 2020 has come and gone, and the letter briefs have been filed, where does the issue stand?.

For brief background let me describe the events that led to this point.

After the Federal Circuit reversed the trial court on the copyrightability of the Java API declaring code there was a jury trial on Google’s fair use defense. The jury entered a general verdict in favor of Google. Oracle filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law before the case went to the jury, and renewed it following the verdict. The trial judge denied that motion, upholding the verdict.

Oracle appealed and in 2018 the Federal Circuit reversed, holding that Google’s fair use defense had failed as a matter of law. The Federal Circuit reviewed the verdict “de novo” – weighing the facts itself and giving no deference to the legal conclusion the jury had reached based its evaluation of those facts. 

That decision (along with the Federal Circuit’s 2014 decision on copyrightability) is now before the Supreme Court.

As it turns out, the issue Oracle and Google focus on in their August 7th briefs is a legal technicality. The technicality arises from the Supreme Court’s conclusion, in a 1985 copyright case, that fair use is a “mixed” question of fact and law. However, mixed questions are not all alike, and may depend on whether a case involves primarily legal or factual work. Which predominates in this case – law or facts? Is Google right that factual issues predominate, in which case the Federal Circuit applied the incorrect standard of review? Is Oracle right that de novo review was appropriate here and that, more broadly, every fair case should be decided by judges alone?


Google argues that the Federal Circuit failed to give appropriate deference to the jury verdict and the trial judge’s post-trial decision in its favor. Google asserts that the correct legal standard, which the trial judge held favored upholding the verdict, is whether a “rational trier of fact” could have reached the jury’s conclusion. Under this standard, Google argues, the jury verdict for Google should be upheld. 

On the mixed fact/law issue, Google argues that in this case factual questions predominated, and therefore the appeals court should have deferred to the jury and trial judge. To drive its point home Google provides this list of factual questions that were presented to the jury: 

    • “the significance of the common practice of reusing software interfaces;
    • the extent to which Oracle made the declarations available to use without a license;
    • whether or how Java SE was used in smartphones or was suited for that environment;
    • how functional the declarations are, and thus removed from the core of copyright;
    • how quantitatively or qualitatively significant the reused declarations were in comparison to the whole of the copyrighted work;
    • how much Sun Microsystems (the original creator of Java SE) supported Google’s reuse;
    • the degree of market harm, if any, suffered by Oracle;
    • how transformative Google’s reuse of the declarations in a smartphone was;
    • whether Google reused more than necessary to achieve an innovative purpose;
    • whether Android competed with Java SE in the market for any derivative product;
    • what were the reasonably likely future derivative markets for Java SE;
    • whether the amount of creativity Android unleashed justified the reuse; and
    • which of the four statutory factors or other unenumerated factors was more or less important in view of all other evidence in the record.”

Google asks the Court to find that when a jury renders a general verdict on disputed facts such as these a reviewing court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, not perform its own de novo weighing of the evidence.


Oracle argues that fair use is a primarily legal, not factual, question properly determined de novo:

The ultimate determination whether a defendant’s copying qualifies as fair use entails primarily legal work because that analysis involves legal judgments balancing the competing policies embodied in the Copyright Act of rewarding innovation, protecting the author’s property rights, encouraging progress of science and arts, and safeguarding constitutional free expression. It is the job of a judge, not a lay jury, to calibrate these interests … Because fair use entails primarily legal work, it receives de novo review.

Based on this argument Oracle asks the Supreme Court to go one step further and hold that there is no right to a jury trial on copyright fair use, an issue the Court has never before directly addressed.

And, in case the Court doesn’t accept this argument, Oracle argues that in this particular case the balance of facts and law is mostly legal, and therefore the appeals court was right to review the jury verdict de novo.


First, it’s unlikely that the Court will decide the broad issue of whether fair use should be tried by judge or jury. There’s no need to address such an important issue in this case, particularly when that issue hasn’t been briefed in depth and neither party raised it as a question on appeal. 

However, there is a good chance the Court will decide that under the facts of this specific case the fair use determination was primarily factual, and therefore the Federal Circuit was wrong to review the case de novo – the jury verdict should have been reviewed under the “deferential” standard.

One incentive for the Court to decide the case in this manner is that it allows the Court to avoid the thorny Java API “copyrightability” issue, which is difficult both technically and legally. Deciding the case on fair use grounds avoids that issue. Deciding that the Federal Circuit failed to give proper deference to the fair use jury verdict for Google resolves the case on the narrowest possible grounds.

I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the Court will reverse the Federal Circuit based on its erroneous application of the de novo standard. I’ll also predict that rather than send the case back to the Federal Circuit for a third hearing it will uphold the verdict in favor of Google and end this marathon litigation once and for all. 

Oral argument is schedule for October 7th, so stay tuned. In the meantime, the key legal documents in this case can be found on my Oracle v. Google Resource Page here.

Seeking to Capitalize on, Kevin Kickstarter Seeks Advice From Attorney

Seeking to Capitalize on, Kevin Kickstarter Seeks Advice From Attorney

(Bill Hilton, a partner at my firm, co-authored this post with me.)

On June 30, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the addition of “.com” to a generic term has the potential to create a protectable trademark. In so ruling the Court rejected the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s “nearly per se rule” that when a generic term is combined with a generic top-level domain the resulting combination is generic. The background of this case is discussed in detail in an earlier post, Supreme Court Will Decide if “” Trademarks Are Entitled to Trademark Protection. A few days after this case was decided Kevin Kickstarter scheduled a meeting with his long-time attorney, Mr. Jaggers, to discuss how he might be able to profit from this decision. Regular readers of this blog may recall Kevin and Mr. Jaggers’ past appearances. Kevin has little regard for the attorney-client privilege, and once again he recorded his meeting with Mr. Jaggers and gave us permission to share it.


KEVIN KICKSTARTER: Hey, Mr. Jaggers. Good to see you! Are you ready to help me make a lot of money? Still hoping to sell my business to Google someday, ha ha!

JAGGERS: Good to see you Kevin. What’s up?

KEVIN: Well, I was reading Barstool Sports and I learned about this case the Supremes decided. Hey, dude, just kidding, I read about it in the Wall Street Journal, not Barstool! Seriously, Mr. Jaggers sir, the Supreme Court seems to be saying that you can take a generic word, add a “dot com” to it, and maybe get trademark rights in the domain name. Am I understanding that right? J

AGGERS: Yes, you are, but like most Supreme Court IP cases, there’s more to it than that …

KEVIN: So tell me about it!

JAGGERS: Well, the court agreed with the Trademark Office’s argument that “booking” for a hotel reservation service is generic. For example, someone might say, “what booking service are you going to use for your trip?” But they disagreed with the Trademark Office’s argument that “” is generic – as they note, no one would say “what are you going to use for your trip?” While “booking” may be generic, is not a generic term to consumers. Consumers associate with a specific website. proved this when it commissioned an extensive consumer survey that established that — to use some trademark law lingo — has “secondary meaning.” However, keep in mind that only achieved secondary meaning by spending many millions of dollars marketing the name over many years.

KEVIN: That makes a lot of sense. Someone might say “what dating service are you using,” but not “what service are you using.” And everyone knows that is a popular business.

JAGGERS: Exactly. Not to get too technical, but the court recognized that a “” term – or, for example – can convey to consumers an association with a particular website, something the Trademark Office was unwilling to do. Not to get too legalistic on you, but the way the court described it is that “whether any given ‘’ term is generic depends on whether consumers in fact perceive that term as the name of a class or, instead, as a term capable of distinguishing among members of the class.”

KEVIN: OK, I think I get it. So, I have a few ideas for some “” domain names. I think I can develop these as trademarks by investing in them, and get them to the point where consumers distinguish them as members of a class, rather than the name of a class. It may take a few years and some bucks, but if could do it, I can do it. What do you think?

JAGGERS: Well, what you describe is certainly possible, but it will take a lot of time and money, and ….

KEVIN: …. Yeah, I get that. But I have a couple of ideas, and I have financial backers. I think I can pull this off. What’s the downside? Why not give it a try?

JAGGERS: The downside is that you’ll spend a lot of money, invest a lot of time, and be unable to pull off what did. It’s really a low percentage shot without a huge budget and years of brand development. Also, smart competitors could poach on you and frustrate your strategy. For example, they could use domain names so similar to yours that you’ll never develop secondary meaning. In other words, they could purposefully create confusion before you acquire trademark rights that would allow you to stop them.

KEVIN: OK Mr. Jaggers, thanks. You’re a  lawyer, and you’re naturally conservative – very conservative. Fortunes aren’t made without taking risks. is a private company, but its value is soaring following the Supreme Court’s decision. So, I’m gonna give it a try. I’ll keep you in the loop, and hopefully a few years from now I’ll be able to tell you that I got the last laugh on this. Ciao, dude!

United States Patent and Trademark Office v., June 30, 2020