Judge John Goger
Judge John Goger (File photo)

With the late-September opening of an international arbitration center on the Georgia State University campus drawing near, the Fulton County Superior Court’s Business Court—which specializes in complex commercial litigation—has been granted the authority to accept cases involving enforcement of international arbitral awards.

In May, the Georgia Supreme Court approved a revision to the rules governing the Business Court, allowing cases subject to the Georgia International Commercial Arbitration Code to be transferred to the business division.

Three senior judges—Alice Bonner, Elizabeth Long and Melvin Westmoreland—handle cases in the division, along with Judge John Goger, the chief of the Business Court. Goger said the ability to transfer international arbitration cases to the Business Court will allow awards granted during arbitrations to be certified—or challenged—more quickly than they would be if routed through the general superior court dockets.

“Typically,” said Goger, “when parties to an arbitration get their award, they need to get it confirmed by the superior court. Or there may be an effort to set aside an award that comes out of an arbitration.”

Challenges to arbitration awards are difficult to sustain under Georgia’s rules, said Goger.

“When an award is challenged, and the court finds a basis for that challenge, it’s really going to be a complex procedure,” he said. “So when there are challenges, [the parties] are going to want a court familiar with complex disputes.”

“The difficulty is that anything that comes into a busy courthouse like this one can take some time, and international arbitration [cases], just like complex business litigation, can involve a great deal of money,” he said. “Once the arbitration process is finished, the request to have it confirmed can be a real logjam.”

The Business Court, tooled for fast-moving and efficient handling of disputes, is ideal to help break that logjam, he said.

The only arbitration cases the Business Court will accept are international cases, he said—domestic arbitration cases at the state court level will continue to be randomly assigned to superior court judges.

The move is aligned with an ongoing push to make Atlanta a major player in the world of international arbitration: In 1988, the General Assembly approved legislation largely based on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law’s Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration, and in 2012 lawmakers updated and expanded the legislation.

Last year, the Atlanta International Arbitration Society announced that it was partnering with Georgia State University to create the Atlanta Center for International Arbitration and Mediation at the university’s new College of Law building near Woodruff Park.

The center’s executive director, Shelby Grubbs, who just moved into the state-of-the-art center this week, said discussions have been ongoing to allow the Business Court to serve as a resource for international arbitration.

“This trend is something we started talking to the Business Court about over a year ago,” said Grubbs. “We’ve seen it in other cities which, like Atlanta, hope to become centers for alternative dispute resolution,” such as Miami and New York.

“Outside the United States, there are other facilities to expedite these issues,” he added.

The Business Court will be available to facilitate the arbitration process at three possible junctures, Grubbs said.

“On the front end, if there’s a challenge to an arbitration agreement itself, the parties may need an expeditious decision as to whether the dispute has to go to arbitration, or to court, or maybe to someplace else in the world.”

The second place that may require a judge to step in is before the arbitration begins, he said.

“Even before the arbitrators have been appointed, there might be a need for injunctive relief—some sort of freezing order to keep the status quo in place,” Grubbs said.

Then, as Goger mentioned, there’s the final stage.

“Once the arbitration is over, the outcome is typically an award, and there’s a need to enforce that award,” said Grubbs. “That can happen two ways: either party can challenge it, [and claim] ‘this is defective in some way,’ or one party can say, ‘We need to enforce this judgment.’”

While the superior court is available, he said, the Business Court was deemed a more promising resource for international arbitration.

“It’s faster, and it’s a place where they can develop expertise,” he said.

Parties to international arbitration also have the option to use the federal courts to settle disputes and enforce awards in appropriate cases, he said, and Georgia’s federal circuit placement is an added boon to parties seeking to arbitrate international disputes.

“In fact, most of the traffic will be in federal court,” said Grubbs, noting that the Federal Arbitration Act—first passed in 1925—serves as the enforcement vehicle for most arbitration agreements.

“One significant advantage for Atlanta is that it’s the home of the Eleventh [U.S.] Circuit Court of Appeals—one of the most arbitration-friendly circuits in the United States,” said Grubbs. “But there is not, in federal district court, something analogous to a Business Court.”

Goger said there would not be any need for additional staffing or training for Business Court judges to handle the arbitration cases.

The Business Court was established in 2005 to deal with complex commercial litigation. According to its 2014 annual report, a complex contract case moving through the court is, on average, disposed of 65 percent faster than cases on a general docket, while complex tort cases move through 56 percent faster.

To be eligible for transfer to the Business Court, a case must involve the Georgia Securities Act, Uniform Commercial Code, Georgia Business Corporation Code, Uniform Partnership Act or Georgia Limited Liability Partnership Act, or involve a dispute over more than $1 million. Jody Rhodes, the Business Court director and staff attorney, said there are usually about 30 active cases on the court’s docket in a given year, with about 20 revolving onto and off of the docket each year.