In light of a recent 5-5 split judgment (PDF) by a full sitting of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the city's highest court will not take on the question of whether mandatory arbitration in attorney-client fee disputes is legally sound.
The underlying case involves a Washington solo practitioner, Pamela Stuart, who sued a former client, Barbara Walker, for failing to pay fees. District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith Macaluso ordered the case to arbitration, citing D.C. Bar Rule XIII, which requires arbitration in attorney-client fee disputes.
Stuart appealed the order, arguing that the Court of Appeals overstepped its legal authority when it enacted the mandatory arbitration rule in the first place. Before the appeals court could consider her challenge, however, it first had to decide whether the Superior Court judge’s order was final and, as a result, appealable.
According to a one-page judgment issued on Feb. 16, the 10-person en banc court was “equally divided” on the question of whether it had the jurisdiction to hear the case. Given the even split and a previous ruling finding that the court didn’t have jurisdiction to hear the case, the court ordered Stuart and Walker to abide by Macaluso’s original order sending the case to arbitration.
The judgment didn’t specify which side individual judges took.
A divided three-judge appellate panel dismissed the case in October 2010, finding that Macaluso’s order wasn’t final and therefore couldn’t be appealed. The District of Columbia Council passed legislation in 2007 that made arbitration orders appealable, but the panel found that the council didn’t have the authority to expand the court’s jurisdiction.
Stuart petitioned the full court to consider the case, which they did on Dec. 19, vacating the October 2010 opinion.
Stuart was supported on appeal by the city’s Office of the Attorney General, which defended the D.C. law in question, the District of Columbia Uniform Arbitration Act. The now-vacated October 2010 appellate ruling found that the legislation unlawfully expanded the appeals court’s jurisdiction.
Walker, who is representing herself in the case, did not attend the December oral arguments. Susan Friedman of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, who represented the D.C. Bar Attorney/Client Arbitration Board in filing the board’s amicus brief agreeing with Walker, argued her case.
Stuart declined to comment. Walker did not return a request for comment. The D.C. Bar, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. The Office of the Attorney General and the D.C. Bar’s attorneys from Wilmer also did not immediately return requests for comment.
V. David Zvenyach, general counsel for the D.C. Council, wrote in an e-mail that while the judgment "was not a complete victory, it was good news for the District, and the Council in particular," since it sustained the order to vacate the October 2010 ruling.