First, a promise: I won’t report on another arbitration case until there is more to say than “business as usual”. Second, an opinion: Arbitration is still the right forum in many situations. Third, remember: An award and a result, not litigation, was what Venoco says it bargained for.
That said, knowing only that Denbury Onshore v. Texcal Energy South Texas is an appeal of an arbitration award in Texas, you can predict the outcome. The award was confirmed.
How to vacate an award
The bases for vacating awards are similar under the federal and the Texas arbitration acts. Generally an award must have been procured by:
- corruption, fraud or undue means,
- evident partiality or corruption,
- arbitrator misconduct (willful misbehavior),
- refusing to postpone the hearing for sufficient cause,
- refusing to hear material evidence,
- other misbehavior that prejudices a party’s rights, or
- the arbitrators exceeded their powers or so imperfectly executed them that a final and definite award was not made.
I’m conflating the two statutes. They aren’t identical but the result is the same: vacating an award is difficult.
Denbury had an option to purchase Venoco’s interests in the Hastings Field. After Denbury achieved payout, Venoco would receive a 25% back-in. Payout was dependent on Denbury’s “CO2 costs”, the direct costs of acquiring (commodity costs) and delivering (transportation costs) CO2.
A three arbitrator panel unanimously declared the meaning of the disputed language of the agreement and issued an award in Venoco’s favor.
Denbury sued to modify and vacate the award for:
- insufficient evidence,
- the arbitrators exceeded their authority by making an incorrect value judgment on the contract clause,
- manifest disregard of the law (in essence, they construed the contract incorrectly), and
- the parties had contracted for judicial review.
All reasonable preferences are indulged in favor of the award, and review of an award is extraordinarily narrow.
Denbury argued that the parties contracted to expand judicial review for reversible error: “An appeal from an order or judgment of the panel shall be taken in the manner and to the same extent as some orders or judgment in civil cases under Texas law.” This was not a clear enough agreement to invoke the appellate process to correct reversible error by the panel.
Did Denbury get what it bargained for?
Under the TAA and FAA an arbitrator exceeds his authority only when he disregards the contract and dispenses his own idea of justice or when he strays from the delegated task of interpreting the contract, not that he performs that task poorly. The panel’s 13-page detailed award satisfied the contractual requirement that the award provide evidentiary references. The award was not so irrational or devoid of authority that the panel was merely dispensing its own idea of justice.
The court concluded that Denbury’s complaint was nothing more than a dispute as to the correctness of the panel’s construction of the provision and an effort to re-argue the merits of the case. Don’t be so sure. I could believe that Denbury believed it could appeal but failed to write the provision clearly enough. Think about that the next time you write such a provision Better yet: why arbitrate if you can appeal?