Washington Court Did Not Have Authority to Review Parenting Plan Arbitration Decision

Arbitration and alternative dispute resolution can save parties to a Washington divorce some of the expense and stress of litigation.  The ability to challenge a decision resulting from a voluntary arbitration may be limited, however.  In a recent case, a father sought court review of an arbitration decision relating to certain parenting plan disputes.

The parties got married in 2014 and had two children together before separating in early 2022.  They filed a joint separation petition, but the mother subsequently withdrew.  The father amended the petition to seek dissolution.

The parties later signed a CR 2A Stipulation and Agreement that stated they agreed the agreement was “fair, just and equitable” and were signing “freely, knowingly and voluntarily. . .” The agreement indicated it was the parties’ “full and final settlement on the issues in this divorce, including most of the provisions for the final parenting plan, the provisions for the child support order, and property division.  It also stated the parties would negotiate the open items of the parenting plan, and if they could not reach an agreement, they would mediate the remaining items with the first available of three listed mediators.  If they failed to reach a mediated settlement, they agreed to binding arbitration.

After failing to reach an agreement, the parties submitted the remaining issues to an arbitrator in May 2023.  The arbitrator issued an award, and the father requested reconsideration.  The arbitrator modified part of the award.

The father subsequently filed a “motion for oral testimony for hearing on de novo review of arbitrator’s decision.”

The court concluded it did not have jurisdiction to review the arbitration award and denied the motion. The court also awarded the mother attorney fees and costs.

The parties presented a final decree, findings of fact and conclusions of law, and a final parenting plan to the court in October 2023.  The court signed and entered the documents.  The father appealed.

The father argued the trial court erred in determining it did not have jurisdiction to review the arbitration award because the legislature intended courts to have the authority to review arbitrations that involved parenting plans, even when the parties agreed to arbitrate.

The appeals court noted that Washington courts have generally approved of the policy to arbitrate disputes and have held that arbitration acts as a substitute for litigation.

Judicial review of arbitration by agreement is governed by RCW chapter 7.04A, where the Uniform Arbitration Act is codified. RCW 7.04A.060(1) provides that an agreement to arbitrate is valid and enforceable except upon grounds for the revocation of contract.  Parties to an arbitration agreement have the right to judicial review only to vacate, modify, correct or confirm an arbitration award and do not otherwise have the right to a de novo judicial review of the arbitration or award.

The Uniform Arbitration Act neither expressly includes or excludes the arbitration of parenting plan disputes.  The appeals court concluded that the language in the statute, “any existing. . . controversy” included unresolved parenting plan disputes.  The appeals court further concluded that the Uniform Arbitration Act suggested the legislature intended it to apply to arbitrations of unresolved parenting plan disputes.  Without some indication the legislature intended otherwise, the court would only have the authority granted by the statute to review such arbitrations.

The father also argued that RCW 26.09.184(4) authorized the court to conduct a de novo review of arbitrations of parenting plan disputes, even if the parties voluntarily agreed to arbitrate. The appeals court rejected this argument, concluding the statute authorized courts to review mandatory parenting plan arbitrations.  The appeals court determined the statute does not authorize court review of parenting plan arbitrations by voluntary agreement.  The appeals court further determined that chapter 7.04A RCW and RCW 26.09.184(4) could be reasonably read not to conflict. The appeals court noted that the statutes state a public policy tying the level of judicial review to how the arbitration arose.  The courts have limited authority to review voluntarily agreed-upon arbitrations and broader authority to review mandatory arbitration of parenting plan disputes.

The father then argued the Uniform Family Law Arbitration Act showed that the legislature intended trial courts to have the authority to review any parenting plan arbitration decision de novo. The Uniform Family Law Arbitration Act gives the court the authority to vacate an unconfirmed arbitration award if the moving party establishes it was procured through fraud, corruption or undue means; there was evidence of partiality or corruption by the arbitrator or misconduct that substantially prejudiced a party’s rights; the arbitrator committed certain errors; there was not an arbitration agreement; or there was not proper notice of the arbitration such that the rights of a party were prejudices.  The Uniform Family Law Arbitration Act did not take effect until January 1, 2024, however.

The appeals court noted that the enactment of the Uniform Family Law Arbitration Act indicated the legislature intended to change the authority of the trial court to review voluntarily parenting plan arbitration decisions. The appeals court concluded the granting of broader authority to review such arbitrations in the Uniform Family Law Arbitration Act suggested courts did not already have that authority under the Uniform Arbitration Act.

Because the Uniform Family Law Arbitration Act was not yet in effect  the appeals court concluded that trial courts had limited authority to review parenting plan arbitrations by voluntary agreement at the times relevant to the appeal. The appeals court concluded the trial court was correct in determining it did not have the authority to perform a de novo review of the arbitration decision.

The appeals court did, however, agree with the father that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding the mother attorney’s fees. The appeals court therefore reversed the award of attorney’s fees and remanded to the trial court to address that issue.

Arbitration can be a valuable tool in resolving family law matters, but an agreement to arbitrate can significantly affect a party’s rights. An experienced Washington family law attorney can review your case and help you determine if arbitration or other alternative dispute resolution may be right for you.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.


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