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Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger Llp v. Bernard Rosenson

February 15, 2012

GREENBERG GLUSKER FIELDS CLAMAN & MACHTINGER LLP, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
BERNARD ROSENSON, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Michael L. Stern, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BS130318)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kriegler, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Reversed.

A retainer agreement between a client and a law firm provided for binding arbitration of fee disputes. The parties initially participated in non-binding arbitration pursuant to the Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act (MFAA, Bus. & Prof. Code, § 6200 et seq.)*fn1 Within 30 days of a non-binding MFAA arbitration award in favor of the client, the law firm filed a demand for binding arbitration under the retainer agreement. Rather than participate in binding arbitration, the client filed a petition to confirm the arbitration award. Agreeing with the client, the trial court ruled the law firm's demand for binding arbitration was ineffective in the absence of filing a superior court action to compel arbitration. The court granted the client's petition to confirm the arbitration award under the MFAA. We hold the law firm's arbitration demand was effective to invoke the arbitration clause without filing a superior court action to compel arbitration, and therefore reverse.

BACKGROUND

Bernard Rosenson signed a retainer agreement in 2003 with the law firm of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLC (Greenberg Glusker). The agreement provided for arbitration of fee disputes before a retired judge or justice in Los Angeles County. After a fee dispute arose, Rosenson requested non-binding arbitration before the Beverly Hills Bar Association pursuant to the MFAA. The arbitrators' decision was filed October 8, 2010, and served on October 13, 2010. The arbitrators found that Rosenson should have been charged $841,851.19, rather than the $916,851.19 he had paid in fees. The arbitrators awarded Rosenson the difference of $75,000 and $5,000 in costs.

On November 1, 2010, Greenberg Glusker filed a demand for arbitration of the dispute with the Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services (JAMS). Rather than participating in arbitration, on January 24, 2011, Rosenson filed a petition to confirm the non-binding arbitration award. Greenberg Glusker opposed the petition, arguing it had exercised its contractual right to arbitration by filing a demand with JAMS within 30 days of the non-binding award.

Rosenson filed a reply, arguing that a non-binding arbitration award under the MFAA becomes final if an action is not filed within 30 days under the language of section 6204, subdivisions (a) and (c). Greenberg Glusker's written arbitration demand to JAMS did not constitute an action, as it contemplated no court proceedings. Although timely, Greenberg Glusker's demand was ineffective.

The trial court granted the petition confirming the arbitration award, ruling that Greenberg Glusker's filing of the demand for arbitration was not the filing of an action under the MFAA. Judgment was entered on March 30, 2011, and this timely appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

Greenberg Glusker argues the trial court misinterpreted the MFAA by ruling that the only way to prevent an award under the MFAA from becoming final is by filing a superior court action to compel arbitration. We agree. If the parties have agreed in writing to binding arbitration, a demand for arbitration within 30 days of service of the MFAA award is a proceeding that prevents finality of the MFAA award.

Standard of Review

"In construing a statute '[o]ur task is to discern the Legislature's intent. The statutory language itself is the most reliable indicator, so we start with the statute's words, assigning them their usual and ordinary meanings, and construing them in context. If the words themselves are not ambiguous, we presume the Legislature meant what it said, and the statute's plain meaning governs. On the other hand, if the language allows more than one reasonable construction, we may look to such aids as the legislative history of the measure and maxims of statutory construction. In cases of uncertain meaning, we may also consider the consequences of a particular interpretation, including its impact ...


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