On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-6468-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 28, 2010 - Decided Before Judges Messano and Waugh.
Defendant, Beynon Sports Surfaces, Inc., appeals from the Law Division's October 23, 2009 order that denied defendant's motion to vacate final judgment entered pursuant to an arbitration award in favor of plaintiff, Ronald S. Ryba. The arbitrator awarded plaintiff commissions he alleged were due and owing from defendant, together with attorney's fees and costs. We have considered the arguments raised on appeal in light of the record and applicable legal standards. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for the entry of an amended final judgment in plaintiff's favor.
Plaintiff initiated this action in the Law Division alleging that he was employed by defendant as "a commissioned sales representative" "selling athletic surfaces, flooring and related products on [d]efendant's behalf." Plaintiff further alleged that when terminated in 2006, he was owed $103,082 in earned commissions. In addition to claims for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and quantum meruit, plaintiff alleged a cause of action pursuant to "the New Jersey Wage Payment Statute, N.J.S.A. Section 34:11-4.1 to 4.14" and "N.J.S.A. Section 34:11-56(a)(1)."*fn1 In that count, plaintiff also sought counsel fees and costs. Defendant's answer generally denied the claims.*fn2
The parties agreed to submit the dispute to binding arbitration before a retired judge of the Superior Court. An arbitration agreement was executed on June 30, 2008, and an order was entered by the Law Division judge on the same day, dismissing the pleadings "with exception of those judgment and enforcement rights reserved" pursuant to the "Rules of Court and Statutes." Arbitration took place over two days after which the arbitrator issued a written award.
The arbitrator found that defendant owed plaintiff certain commissions. He further concluded:
[Defendant] admitted owing [plaintiff] $2500 at the arbitration hearing. This admission, in addition to my finding, entitles [plaintiff] to counsel fees.
Accordingly, I award [plaintiff] $89,566.82 plus counsel fees and costs pursuant to the statute referred to . . . .
The "statute referred to" was N.J.S.A. 34:11-56(a)(25), cited by the arbitrator earlier in the award. Plaintiff's counsel subsequently submitted an affidavit of services, and the arbitrator's final award included $15,297.79 in attorney's fees and costs.
On July 27, 2009, the Law Division judge entered an order for final judgment in the amount of $104,864.61. On October 9, defendant moved to vacate the judgment pursuant to Rule 4:50, and to "vacat[e] and/or modify the arbitration award . . . in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-23/24." The motion was supported by a certification from John Beynon, defendant's president. It suffices to say that the certification reiterated defendant's position advanced at the arbitration. In particular, Beynon took issue with the arbitrator's interpretation of a December 30, 2003 letter he sent to plaintiff which he contended outlined "the terms of the commission structure" (the December 2003 letter). Additionally, Beynon's certification noted that "[n]one of the documentation submitted at the arbitration hearing indicated any agreement between the parties for an award of counsel fees in the event of a dispute." As a result, "the parties never agreed to have attorney fees included as part of any award . . . ."
After oral argument on defendant's motion, the Law Division judge concluded that defendant had failed to demonstrate any "criteria enunciated by . . . statute," to support vacation or modification of the arbitrator's award. Regarding the award of counsel fees and costs, the judge simply concluded it was "within [the arbitrator's] power to enter a total award, including fees and costs." The judge entered an order on October 23 denying the motion, and this appeal followed.
We state some well-recognized principles regarding arbitration and the court's review of an arbitral decision. The 2003 Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 to -32 (the Arbitration Act), "continues our state's long-standing policy to favor voluntary arbitration as a means of dispute resolution." Block v. Plosia, 390 N.J. Super. 543, 551 (App. Div. 2007). To ensure that finality, as well as to secure arbitration's speedy and inexpensive nature, there exists a strong preference for judicial confirmation of arbitration awards. Indeed, the role of the courts in reviewing arbitration awards is extremely limited and an arbitrator's award is not to be set aside lightly. [N.J. Tpk. Auth. v. Local 196, I.F.P.T.E., 190 N.J. 283, 292 (2007) (quotations omitted) (emphasis added).]
And See Block, supra, 390 N.J. Super. at 552. Regarding defendant's claim pursuant to the Arbitration Act, "[b]ecause the matter at issue is legal in nature, our review of the motion judge's decision is plenary." Del Piano v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 372 N.J. Super. 503, 507 (App. Div. 2004), appeal dismissed, 195 N.J. ...