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In re Marriage of Piske

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

May 7, 2019


          On Appeal from the 246th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2014-59709

          Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Jewell, and Hassan


          Meagan Hassan Justice

         Jamie Krivan Lange appeals the trial court's judgment confirming an arbitration award entered in favor of William Edward Piske, Jr. On appeal, Lange asserts the arbitrator exhibited evident partiality in Piske's favor by failing to disclose his personal and professional connections with one of Piske's attorneys. For the reasons below, we reverse the trial court's judgment, vacate the arbitration award, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         I. Underlying Facts and Arbitration

         Lange and Piske married in 2008 and Piske filed a petition for divorce in 2014. Lange filed a counter-petition asserting breach of contract and tort claims against Piske arising from the parties' joint business dealings. Lange and Piske filed a joint motion to refer the case to arbitration in accordance with their premarital agreement.[1]

         In their "Amended Agreed Order Appointing Arbitrator and Special Master," Lange and Piske appointed Houston family-law attorney Warren Cole to arbitrate their dispute. After his appointment, Cole emailed both parties' attorneys a document entitled, "Family Law Arbitration Rules." Under the subtitle "Qualifications of Arbitrator," the rules state, in relevant part:

The Arbitrator shall disclose to the parties any circumstance likely to affect impartiality, including any bias or financial or personal interest in the result of the arbitration, or any past or present relationship with the parties or their counsel.

         At the parties' initial status conference with Cole, Cole represented that he did not have a material relationship with any of the parties or their counsel other than normal professional relationships.

In January 2017, Houston family-law attorney Joan Jenkins filed a notice of appearance in the case as Piske's co-counsel. According to Cole, he did not supplement his initial disclosures after Jenkins' appearance.

         The arbitration hearings were conducted between February 27 and March 7, 2017. The trial court's order appointing Cole required the arbitration award be issued within 21 days after the case was closed, but Cole did not issue an award within this period. On July 12, 2017, Jenkins emailed Cole requesting a ruling:

Warren - You know how much I think of you as a friend and a lawyer however I must address the issue with this case and your lack of a ruling. It has now been 18 weeks since this case was tried, almost 5 months. These parties need closure. Each time you reply to us when we inquire about a ruling you tell us you are "working on it" and should have it out within a few days. Still nothing. Can you please rule? With all due respect, this is becoming beyond anything litigants should be required to endure, especially when they are paying for your services. I would appreciate a reply today. Thank you. Jo.

         Cole issued his arbitration award several days later, ruling in favor of Piske and against most of Lange's claims. The trial court scheduled a hearing to enter a final divorce decree.

         II. Post-Arbitration Legal Proceedings

         Four days before the scheduled hearing, Lange filed a motion for continuance. Asserting she had "bona fide evidence of an undisclosed social relationship" between Cole and Jenkins, Lange requested an opportunity to conduct additional discovery. Concurrently, Lange also filed an emergency motion to vacate the arbitration award. Lange asserted her rights were "prejudiced by Cole's evident partiality arising from Cole's failure to disclose a close friendship with Piske's counsel, Joan Jenkins."

         Piske filed a response to Lange's motion to vacate and attached an affidavit signed by Jenkins which states, in relevant part:

• Jenkins has known Cole for 30-plus years, and both she and Cole are very involved with State Bar activities and CLE programs. Jenkins and Cole often are featured on the same CLE programs.
• Jenkins and Cole both "regularly practice in the area of high wealth/high profile divorces." Attorneys practicing in this area regularly see each other in practice.
• Along with other family lawyers, Jenkins "attended three or four outdoor cookouts at Warren Cole's home on Galveston Island." These events were ...

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