Arbitration in Massachusetts Probate and Family Court
Mediation and arbitration are often less expensive and less stressful alternatives to litigation in family law matters. The parties must agree to submit to alternative dispute resolution, however. When agreeing to one of these alternatives, the parties should understand what the agreement entails and whether the decision is subject to judicial review.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently reviewed a challenge to a judgment based on an arbitrator’s findings and award in Gravlin v. Gravlin.
The husband appealed Probate and Family Court judgments after the court confirmed an arbitration award for the wife, arguing it was an improper delegation of the judge’s authority to submit the complaints to arbitration and an abuse of discretion to enter judgment based on the arbitration award.
The parties’ separation agreement, which was incorporated into the divorce judgment, set forth the amount of child support. The agreement acknowledged that the amount exceeded the required amount under the child support guidelines, but it noted it reflected the parties’ desire to keep the home for the children.
The father subsequently filed a complaint to reduce the child support. He alleged that he had a significant drop in income and that the parties were following a schedule that resembled equally shared custody, and he requested modification of the child support to align with the schedule.
The mother filed a counterclaim for half the costs of school and extracurricular activities. She also filed several contempt complaints, alleging that the husband was behind on child support.
The parties subsequently jointly moved to submit their complaints to binding arbitration. They agreed that the decision would not be subject to appeal. They also agreed upon the attorney. The judge granted the motion, and the parties entered into an arbitration agreement.
The arbitrator’s decision and award denied the husband’s complaint for modification and dismissed the mother’s counterclaim for modification. He found the father in contempt under three complaints, but he dismissed the other complaint for contempt. The arbitrator denied the father’s motion to reconsider but amended one of the contempt awards.
The judge subsequently issued an order reflecting the terms of the arbitration decision and award and issued judgments. The order dismissed the complaint for modification with prejudice. The father then appealed.
It is generally an improper delegation of a judge’s authority to submit a case to binding arbitration without the agreement of the parties. The Supreme Judicial Court has held that judges cannot force a party to submit to third-party decision-making authorities. The appeals court distinguished this case, in which the parties, with the advice of their attorneys, had agreed to have their case decided through binding arbitration. The appeals court found that there was not an improper delegation of authority here because there was an agreement between the parties to arbitrate.
After an arbitrator’s decision and award, it is still the judge’s duty to make the final resolution. The father argued it was an abuse of discretion for the judge to dismiss his complaint for modification because the arbitrator disregarded the law, did not make findings supporting his denial of the modification, and failed to properly apply the statutes and child support guidelines. The appeals court found that the father had waived this claim by failing to attach a transcript of the court proceedings in which the arbitrator’s awards were confirmed.
The appeals court noted that there is no Massachusetts statute that specifically applies to arbitration in Probate and Family Court cases, but the general rules regarding the review of arbitration awards apply. Generally, a court’s review of arbitration awards is narrow. Massachusetts law related to the arbitration of commercial disputes limits the court’s review to determining if the arbitrator awarded relief beyond that which was prohibited by law or beyond the parties’ agreement, or made the decision based on “fraud, arbitrary conduct, or procedural irregularity…” Generally, the court does not inquire into whether the fact finding or legal conclusions were erroneous. The court generally defers to the arbitrator’s decision, due to the public policy favoring arbitration.
In light of the agreement between the parties, the appeals court found that these standard principles should apply. The appeals court affirmed the judgments of the lower court.