Alabama Supreme Court clarifies procedure for appealing decisions of an arbitrator

In Horton Homes, Inc. v. Shaner, Ms. 1061659, 1061741 (Ala. June 20, 2008), the Alabama Supreme Court attempted to clarify the procedure for appealing an arbitrator’s decision.  Specifically, in its Per Curiam opinion, the Court "address[ed] two aspects of that procedure, namely: (1) the time period for filing an appeal of an arbitration award, and (2) the role of the circuit court in reviewing that arbitration award."  Slip Op. p. 2-3.

In short, a party has 42 days from the date of receipt of notice to file an appeal of the arbitrator’s award in the circuit court.  Further, a party challenging an award is required to file a motion to vacate the award, and that motion is subject to the procedures of Ala. R. Civ. P. 59 and 59.1.

The Court recognized that there has been much confusion and contradiction about the relationship between Ala Code 6-6-15, which states that a notice of appeal must be filed within 10 days of the receipt of notice of the arbitration award, and Ala. R. App. P. 4, which states that a party has 42 days to file a notice of appeal.  The Supreme Court finally resolved this issue:

To eliminate any confusion, we now explicitly recognize that Rule 4 does operate to expand the statutory time period for taking an appeal of an arbitrator’s award from 10 days from the date of receipt of notice of the award to 42 days from that date.

Slip Op. p. 7.  The Court expressly overruled cases which held or indicated to the contrary.

The Court then addressed what procedures must occur in the trial court before appellate review may proceed.

Ala. Code 6-6-15 "provides that the clerk’s entry of judgment on the award becomes final after 10 days, if during that 10-day period the circuit court has not set aside the award.  At that point, ‘the judgment shall become final and an appeal shall lie as in other cases.’"  Slip Op. p. 8.  The Court found that this code section anticipates that a motion to vacate will be filed and considered by the trial court before an appeal may lie, and held that a party is required to file a motion to vacate to preserve the right to appeal:

The judgment entered by the circuit court on the arbitrator’s award pursuant to 6-6-15 is a conditional one; it does not become a final appealable judgment until the circuit court has had an opportunity to consider a motion to vacate filed by a party seeking review of the arbitration award.  A party seeking review of an arbitration award is required to file a motion to vacate during this period — while the judgment entered by the circuit court remains conditional — in order to preserve its ability to later prosecute that appeal to an appellate court once the judgment becomes final.

Slip Op. p. 11-12 (emphasis in original).  This finding by the Supreme Court contradicted prior cases, so prior cases to the contrary were overruled.

However, the Court recognized that 10 days is an unreasonable amount of time for the parties to brief and the trial court to consider a motion to vacate, and held that the review procedure should resemble other post-judgment procedures:

Accordingly, we modify that timeline established in 6-6-15 as follows to make it consistent with the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure and to allow for a more meaningful review by the trial court.

Rule 59(e), Ala. R. Civ. P., provides that a party has 30 days after the entry of judgment to file a motion to alter, amend, or vacte that judgment.  Accordingly, borrowing from the spirit of Rule 59(e), we hold that a party desiring judicial review of an arbitration award pursuant to 6-6-15 must file in the appropriate circuit court a motion to alter, amend, vacate, or set aside the award with 30 days of filing the notice of appeal of the arbitration award and the clerk’s entry of the conditional judgment based thereon.  If that motion is timely filed, the circuit court shall then have 90 days, unless that time is extended by the consent of all parties, to dispose of the motion.  See Ala. R. Civ. P. 59.1 . . .

If the circuit court grants the motion to vacate during this 90-day period, then the nonmovant has 42 days from the order granting the motion in which to file in the circuit court a notice of appeal of the court’s judgment.  If the circuit court denies the motion to vacate within 90 days or allows the motion to be denied by inaction after 90 days, then the conditional judgment entered by the circuit clerk becomes final, and the appeal is processed based on the prior notice of appeal.

Slip Op. pp. 13-15 (emphasis in original).  The case was remanded to the trial court for procedures consistent with the opinion.

Justice See filed an opinion concurring in the result, stating that the Court reached a "practical result."  Slip Op. p. 17.  Justice See further stated that he hoped that the civil and appellate rules committees would develop proposed rules on this issue.

Justice Murdock filed a lengthy opinion concurring in the result but dissenting in the rationale.  Justice Murdock stated that the Court could not just pick and choose which provisions of Ala. R. App. P. it chooses to follow.  Justice Murdock provided a detailed analysis of his view on the interplay of Appellate Rule 4 and 6-6-15.