We all know how difficult it is to vacate an arbitrator’s award. The Florida Supreme Court has held that “the standard of judicial review of statutory arbitration awards is extremely limited.” Schnurmacher Holdings, Inc. v. Noriega, 542 So.2d 1327, 1330 (Fla. 1989); see also Boyhan v. Maguire, 693 So.2d 659, 662 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). In fact, an arbitration award cannot even be “reversed on the ground that the arbitrator made an error of law.” Schnurmacher Holdings, 542 So.2d at 1330 (citing Cassara v. Wofford, 55 So.2d 102, 105 (Fla. 1951)).
However, the Second District Court of Appeal recently identified a basis for vacating an arbitration award in the case of Quesada v. City of Tampa, 37 FLW D1614 (Fla. 2d DCA Jul. 6, 2012). Travis Quesada was an employee of Tampa Fire Rescue who was fired after a he tested positive for “suspicious levels of the metabolite 19-norandrosterone,” which suggested that he had taken the anabolic steroid Nandrolone. Mr. Quesada argued that he had not taken any illegal steroids and that the positive test results were caused by his use of “the legal, over-the-counter supplement 17-Halo-Methyl-Duanadrone” (“17-HD”). Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, Mr. Quesada’s grievance was submitted to arbitration, at which time both sides presented expert testimony about whether “legal supplements such as 17-HD could produce a false positive result on a test for steroids.” The arbitrator ultimately entered an award in favor the employer, which discussed the findings from her independent research about 17-HD, including information from the internet that “17-HD is just a bunch of herbs with a name that tries to sound like a prohormone or even a potent steroid.” The trial court denied Mr. Quesada’s request to vacate the arbitration award based upon the fact that the arbitrator had conducted independent research.
On appeal, the Second District Court of Appeal identified the five statutory bases for vacating an arbitration award, as set forth in Fla. Stat. §682.13(1). The Court determined that the arbitrator’s independent research constituted misconduct that resulted in prejudice to Mr. Quesada. Based upon that finding of misconduct by the arbitrator, the Court reversed the trial court’s order and vacated the arbitration award.
Florida courts have traditionally been reluctant to vacate an arbitration award and practitioners have often met with limited success in their efforts to overturn arbitration awards. Accordingly, it is interesting to see the Second District Court of Appeal finding a way to shoehorn an arbitrator’s independent research into one of the statutory categories that allow an arbitration award to be vacated.