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Arbitrators

The Job

When two or more parties have a dispute, they may choose to avoid costly and time-consuming litigation by asking an impartial third-party to hear and resolve a dispute. Additionally, arbitration may be mandatory if a contract signed by the parties features a clause that requires this form of conflict resolution, or if it is required by federal or state law for disputes relating to certain legal matters.

The first step in the arbitration process involves the filing of a statement of claim by one of the parties involved in the dispute (this party is known as the plaintiff). This document specifies the facts surrounding the dispute and the remedies requested. The responding party (known as the defendant) then files an answer to the claim, in which they respond to the statement of claim with their own facts and defense arguments.

The next step involves the selection of an arbitrator or an arbitration panel (three arbitrators) to hear and resolve the complaint. The two opposing parties (sometimes known as disputants) select the arbitrator from a list of qualified arbitrators that is provided by an arbitration association, government regulatory body, court system, or other entity. In some instances when a three-arbitrator panel is used, each party selects one arbitrator and a third is chosen by a neutral third party.

Once the arbitrator is selected, he or she talks with the two parties via conference call about the details of the dispute, potential witnesses that will testify, proposed hearing dates, and any other topics (how trade secrets and proprietary information will be handled, for example) that need to be resolved before the hearing. The next step is discovery, in which each side exchanges requested information in preparation for the hearing. The arbitrator addresses any impasses that occur between the opposing parties regarding the exchange of information, proposed hearing dates, or other issues. After they obtain this information, they research applicable laws, regulations, policies, and precedent decisions in order to have a legal framework on which to base their ruling. An arbitrator with a background as a lawyer or judge will already have this knowledge and won’t need to conduct any research (unless the dispute relates to an arcane area of the law or a specialized aspect of an industry).

At the hearing, the opposing parties (who are sometimes represented by lawyers) present their arguments and evidence that supports their view of the issue to the arbitrator or panel. The arbitrator may ask the plaintiff and defendant questions about their statements and documents, as well as request additional documents. In some situations, the arbitrator travels to a work site or other setting that is referenced by the opposing parties to obtain more information and gain a better understanding of the situation in dispute.

A hearing can last anywhere from a day to a week or so. After the evidence, witnesses, and arguments are heard, the arbitrator ends the hearing. The arbitrator may allow both parties to submit additional documentation after the hearing, but this typically only happens in complex cases. Once this process is complete, the arbitrator (or panel) assesses the evidence and testimony and renders a written decision (called an award). The decision is binding under state or federal statutes (unless the parties previously agreed to a non-binding process). The party that the arbitrator ruled against must follow the ruling. The award may require one party to pay another party financial compensation and/or it may require one or both parties to take specific actions to resolve the issue.

Not every arbitration hearing ends in an award. Some are settled between the opposing parties before a decision is rendered or addressed through mediation sessions (another form of conflict resolution), which may be held concurrently with arbitration hearings.

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