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Williams v. Tucker

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 13, 2017

JOHN D. WILLIAMS Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
KENNETH L. TUCKER and DEBORAH A. TUCKER Defendants Below, Respondents

          Submitted: May 23, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Putnam County The Honorable Phillip M. Stowers, Judge Civil Action No. 16-C-46

         REVERSED AND REMANDED.

          Stuart A. McMillan Daniel J. Cohn Bowles Rice LLP Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for the Petitioner.

          James B. Atkins Atkins & Ogle Law Offices, LC Buffalo, West Virginia Counsel for the Respondents.

          JUSTICE WALKER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

          JUSTICE WORKMAN concurs and reserves the right to file a separate opinion.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "The denial or granting of an injunction by a trial court is discretionary and will not be disturbed upon an appeal unless there is an absolute right for an injunction or some abuses shown in connection with the denial or granting thereof" Syllabus Point 6, West Virginia Bd. of Dental Exam'rs v. Storch, 146 W.Va. 662, 122 S.E.2d 295 (1961).

         2. "Where the issue on appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question of law or involving an interpretation of a statute, we apply a de novo standard of review." Syllabus Point 1, Chrystal R.M. v. Charlie A.L., 194 W.Va. 138, 459 S.E.2d 415 (1995).

         3. "Nothing in the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 2, overrides normal rules of contract interpretation. Generally applicable contract defenses-such as laches, estoppel, waiver, fraud, duress, or unconscionability-may be applied to invalidate an arbitration agreement." Syllabus Point 9, Brown v. Genesis Healthcare Corp., 228 W.Va. 646, 724 S.E.2d 250 (2011) (reversed on other grounds by Marmet Health Care Ctr., Inc. v. Brown, 565 U.S. 530 (2012)).

         4. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, waiver of a contractual right to arbitration is a threshold question of enforceability to be determined by a court, not an arbitrator.

         5. "The common-law doctrine of waiver focuses on the conduct of the party against whom waiver is sought, and requires that party to have intentionally relinquished a known right. A waiver may be express or may be inferred from actions or conduct, but all of the attendant facts, taken together, must amount to an intentional relinquishment of a known right. There is no requirement of prejudice or detrimental reliance by the party asserting waiver." Syllabus Point 2, Parsons v. Halliburton Energy Services, Inc., 237 W.Va. 138, 785 S.E.2d 844 (2016).

         6. "A party to a binding, irrevocable arbitration cannot unilaterally withdraw from participation in the arbitration after it has begun. If a party to a binding irrevocable arbitration unilaterally withdraws from the arbitration, the claims or issues raised by the withdrawing party are abandoned, thereby precluding them from being pursued in any subsequent arbitration or civil action." Syllabus Point 1, Crihfield v. Brown, 224 W.Va. 407, 686 S.E.2d 58 (2009).

          WALKER, Justice.

         Petitioner John D. Williams ("Mr. Williams") appeals the June 17, 2016 order of the Circuit Court of Putnam County denying his motion for a preliminary and permanent injunction to prohibit Respondents Kenneth L. Tucker and Deborah A. Tucker ("the Tuckers") from pursuing their claims through arbitration. Mr. Williams alleges the circuit court erred by abdicating its authority to consider questions of waiver and estoppel to an arbitrator. Mr. Williams further alleges that the court erred in failing to find that the arbitration was barred as a matter of law because (1) it constitutes an impermissible collateral attack on a prior award in favor of Mr. Williams; and (2) the Tuckers waived their right to arbitration. Upon consideration of the parties' briefs, oral argument, [1] the submitted record and pertinent authorities, we reverse the circuit court's order.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Tuckers began investing with Mr. Williams's investment firm in October 2007. At the outset of the professional relationship between Mr. Williams and the Tuckers, the parties entered into an Asset Management Agreement ("Agreement") on September 19, 2007. Among other things, the Agreement specifically provides for arbitration of disputes between the parties as follows:

Disputes - This agreement contains a provision which requires that all claims arising between the parties in respect to this Agreement shall be resolved through arbitration.
Client is aware that:
1. Arbitration is final and binding on all parties.
2. The parties are waiving their right to seek remedies in court, including the right to a jury trial.
3. Pre-arbitration discovery is generally more limited than and potentially different in form and scope than ...

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