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Richard v. Robinson

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 12, 2019

Gerald Richard
v.
Steven Robinson.

          Kent County Superior Court KC 11-378 Joseph A. Montalbano Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Thomas L. Mirza, Esq.

          For Defendant: Steven A. Robinson, Pro Se

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          FRANCIS X. FLAHERTY ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         The defendant, Steven Robinson, appeals from an order of the Superior Court that denied his motion to confirm an arbitration award in his favor. This case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument on February 28, 2019, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not summarily be decided. After hearing the arguments of the parties and examining the memoranda filed by the parties, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the order of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         This case originated as a legal malpractice action in which the plaintiff, Gerald Richard, alleged that defendant, plaintiff's former attorney, had failed to properly record a property settlement agreement that had been executed by plaintiff and his ex-wife during the course of their divorce proceeding.

         The malpractice action proceeded to court-annexed arbitration, and an arbitration award was issued in favor of defendant on February 7, 2018. On February 15, 2018, plaintiff filed a timely rejection of the arbitration award, employing the Superior Court's electronic filing system. However, that filing was rejected that same day by the Superior Court Arbitration Office because plaintiff had used an incorrect filing code when he submitted his rejection of the award. The plaintiff maintains that, after he learned that his filing had not been accepted, his attorney left a voicemail message with the Superior Court clerk's office either the next day, February 16, or on February 19, the Monday following his receipt of the deficiency notice. According to plaintiff, on March 8, 2018, the day before the thirty day statutory period for rejecting an arbitration award was to expire, the parties participated in a pretrial conference with the trial justice.

         At that time, plaintiff represented that he had filed a rejection of the arbitration award, but he did not mention that his filing had not been accepted by the Arbitration Office.

         On March 12, three days after the statutory period expired, defendant received an automatic notice via electronic mail that plaintiff had failed to reject the arbitration award. The defendant then quickly filed a motion to confirm the arbitration award in Superior Court.

         When he received notice of defendant's motion to confirm, plaintiff again contacted the Superior Court clerk's office in an effort to determine the correct code to be used when filing a rejection of an arbitration award through the electronic filing system. The plaintiff then attempted a corrected filing. That filing was also rejected, however, because the statutory filing period had expired.

         On March 16, plaintiff filed a motion styled "O[b]jection to Defendant's Acceptance of Arbitration Award and/or Plaintiff's' [sic] Motion to Accept His Rejection of the Arbitrator's Award Out of Time Pursuant to Superior Court Rule 6(b)." After a hearing on April 6, 2018, a justice of the Superior Court denied defendant's motion to confirm the arbitration award, but he did not explicitly rule on plaintiff's Rule 6(b) motion. The defendant filed this timely appeal, arguing that plaintiff's lax and ineffective efforts to correct the deficient rejection of the arbitration award after the statutory period for making such a filing had expired did not rise to the level of excusable neglect. Therefore, he argues, plaintiff's corrected filing should not have been considered timely and, as a result, defendant's motion to confirm should have been granted.

         II

         Discussion

         Rule 5(a) of the Superior Court Rules Governing Arbitration of Civil Actions provides that "[a]ny party * * * who is dissatisfied with an arbitrator's award may have a trial as of right upon filing a written rejection of the award * * * within thirty (30) days after the arbitrator's award has been filed[.]" If the dissatisfied party fails to file a written rejection of the award within the thirty day statutory period, the prevailing party "may apply to the court for an order confirming the award, and thereupon the court must grant the order confirming the award unless the award is vacated, modified or corrected[.]" General Laws 1956 § 10-3-11. It is worth highlighting that a motion to confirm an arbitration award in court-annexed arbitration may be brought only if a motion to reject the award has not been filed within the thirty day statutory period.

         We must determine, therefore, whether defendant's motion to confirm the arbitrator's award became ripe as a result of plaintiff's failure to correct his initially deficient motion to reject the award within the statutory period. Before we reach this question, however, we must determine the correct standard by which to consider plaintiff's corrected rejection of the arbitrator's award. Moreover, because of the novelty of the issue, we also take the opportunity to address the circumstances under which the appropriate office of the Superior Court may reject a filing submitted through the electronic filing system.

         A

         The Initial Rejection

         Although the issue was not raised by the litigants, we take the liberty to address the instances when an electronically submitted filing may be rejected either by the Superior Court clerk's office or the Superior Court Arbitration Office. We note, however, that, because neither party has challenged the procedures employed by the Superior Court Arbitration Office in this case, we do not base our decision in this case on that issue. See State v. Figuereo, 31 A.3d 1283, 1289 (R.I. 2011) ("It is well-settled that this Court will not review issues that were not presented to the trial court 'in such a posture as to alert the trial justice to the question being raised.'") (quoting Pollard v. Acer Group, 870 A.2d 429, 433 (R.I. 2005)).

         The Superior Court implemented mandatory electronic filing in November 2014. See Super. R. Civ. P. 86. In connection with that implementation, this Court adopted Article X of the Supreme Court Rules, Governing Electronic Filing (the Electronic Filing Rules). Shortly thereafter, the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure and the Superior Court Rules Governing Arbitration of Civil Actions (the Arbitration Rules) were amended to address the proper procedure for litigants to follow when submitting filings using that system.

         The amended rules specify the process for the appropriate office of the Superior Court to review those filings for compliance with the electronic filing procedures. Rule 1(b)(4) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 1(f)(3) of the Arbitration Rules, and Rule 5(c) of the Electronic Filing Rules all provide, with some inconsequential variation in language, [1] that "Upon acceptance, the submitted document[(s)] shall be entered into the docket of the case and the docket shall reflect the date and time of filing as set forth in [Art. X, ] Rule 5(b) [of the Rhode Island Supreme Court Rules Governing Electronic Filing]."[2] An electronically submitted document may be rejected, however, only for the grounds specifically enumerated in the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure and the Arbitration Rules, depending on the nature of the case. If a document is rejected, Rule 5(c) of the Electronic Filing Rules provides that "a rejection notice shall be sent to the filing party and the document shall not be docketed."[3]

         Of particular note in this case, the grounds for rejecting a filing in general civil cases are far more extensive than the grounds for rejecting a filing in arbitration cases. Pursuant to Rule 1(b)(4) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, there are seventeen grounds for rejecting an electronically submitted document in general civil cases:

"(A) Pleadings filed without a conventional signature where required;
"(B) Pleadings filed without the required documents as set forth in the Superior Court's Electronic Filing System Guidelines;
"(C) Pleadings not filed in accordance with Rule 1(b)(3);
"(D) Discovery requests and responses not filed in accordance with Rule 5(d);
"(E) Documents, including any required documents, attachments, or exhibits, scanned in the wrong orientation, e.g., upside down or backwards;
"(F) Documents scanned and filed that are unreadable or illegible;
"(G) Documents filed in a fillable portable document format (PDF);
"(H) Fees not paid on requested executions and citations;
"(I) The document filed does not match the selected filing code type;
"(J) The document is filed into the wrong case;
"(K) The document contains the wrong or incomplete case caption;
"(L) The document is filed with no case identification;
"(M) The document was improperly scanned or uploaded;
"(N) The party name, party address, or document name exceeds the number of allotted characters in the EFS;
"(O) The filer added a party or participant that is not configured in the CMS [Case Management System] or does not match ...

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