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COA: Trust not bound by ISTA employment arbitration clause

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled that two former leaders in the Indiana State Teachers Association who served as trustees for a legally separate insurance trust can’t force the trust’s governing board to adhere to arbitration clauses outlined in their ISTA employment contracts.

An appellate ruling came today in Warren L. Williams, et al. v. David Orentlicher, et al., No. 49A02-1003-PL-249, a case that raised questions about the overlap in employment contracts and common law fiduciary duties when the lines are blurred by someone functioning as an employee when performing those separate trustee tasks.

The case involves Warren L. Williams, the ISTA’s executive director from 1984 until his resignation in May 2009, and Robert Frankel, the labor organization’s deputy executive director from 2002 until his resignation in April 2009. With their ISTA positions, both also held ex officio roles with the ISTA Insurance Trust. The trust was created in 1985 as a common law trust legally separate from the ISTA and designed to provide insurance programs for Indiana school corporations to adopt as benefit plans for their employees. Williams served as a trustee and devoted about 20 percent of his total work time to the trust, while Frankel was the trust director and spent about 40 percent of his time on that activity.

Both renewed their ISTA employment contracts in July 2008, and while neither mentioned the trust, their responsibilities included anything the board of directors might define from time to time. Each contract contained an arbitration clause stipulating that “any issue arising regarding the performance of any obligation under the terms of this Agreement” would go through arbitration.

The two resigned in spring 2009, and that summer the trustees filed a complaint against Williams and Frankel and others who were alleged to have breached their fiduciary duties to the trust and conspired to place a bulk of the trust’s assets in alternative investments and private placements without board approval. As a result of this alleged malfeasance, the trustees said the trust could not function as a funding vehicle for medical insurance programs and long-term disability insurance and that left about 650 claimants without assistance for an estimated $34 million in benefits.

Williams and Frankel filed a motion to compel for arbitration on claims the ISTA had denied them compensation and benefits, and the trust responded that its case was separate from any employment contract arbitration issue because the pair was being sued in their capacities as trust officials, not their ISTA leadership positions. Marion Superior Judge Robyn Moberly denied the motion and later denied their motion to stay the trial court proceedings pending appeal. The Court of Appeals also denied that request in July.

The appellate court affirmed Judge Moberly’s findings and held that the trust is not a party to the employment contracts and that’s what is at issue when it comes to the motion to compel arbitration.

Citing a handful of federal precedents from across the country, the majority of Judge Edward Najam and Chief Judge John Baker determined that the legal duties that Williams and Frankel allegedly breached flowed to the trust as a matter of Indiana law and didn’t fall within the express terms of their employment contracts with the ISTA. Neither action is dependent upon the other, they ruled.

Judge Najam also pointed out that counsel for Williams and Frankel didn’t contend during oral arguments that the trust is an “alter ego of the ISTA” when the appellate court asked about that, and so the “close relationship theory” doesn’t apply here.

“As such, the Trust is not estopped from disclaiming the arbitration clauses, even if the Trust is a third party beneficiary to the contracts,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the majority, which Chief Judge John Baker joined. “And the ‘close relationship’ between the Trust and the ISTA is not, on these facts, legally sufficient to compel the Trust to arbitrate its claims against Williams and Frankel.”

Judge James Kirsch dissented in a separate opinion, saying he’d reverse and order the trial court to grant the motion because Williams’ and Frankel’s respective ISTA responsibilities were an integral foundation for what they did as ex officio members for the trust.

“The affairs of the Indiana State Teachers Association included those of the Trust,” he wrote. “As defined by the ISTA Board of Trustees, the duties of the positions that Williams and Frankel held with ISTA required them to carry out their duties with the Trust. Having received the benefits of such agreements, the Trust should not now be able to disavow the arbitration provisions contained therein. It should be bound to the arbitration provisions of such agreements, to the same extent that ISTA itself is bound.”

Judge Kirsch cited TWH, Inc. v. Binford, 898 N.E. 2d 451 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), where the appellate court, with Judge Najam authoring, held that a third party beneficiary of a contract containing an enforceable arbitration provision is bound by such provision even though the beneficiary was not a signatory to the agreement.

But the majority declined to “expand” the Binford rule as it says Judge Kirsch advocates, saying that the Trust here is not asserting a contract nor disavowing an employment contract provision. Instead, this is a common law claim against Williams and Frankel independent of the pair’s employment contracts with the ISTA and any issues arising from that.
 

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