Second District Declines to Compel Arbitration Based Only on Oral Agreement

Our Illinois alternative dispute resolution lawyers were interested to see an appeals case clarifying that parties can only be compelled to binding arbitration if they have an explicit written contract. In Heider v. Knautz, No. 2-09-0808 (Ill. 2nd Dec.4, 2009), Arlie Heider sued Carl Knautz for injuries arising out of a car accident, including a knee injury. During a September hearing on admission of Heider’s Wisconsin-based attorney to Illinois courts, that attorney asked to suspend his request for admission because both parties had agreed to binding arbitration. The court stayed the case for six months pending the arbitration.

However, some months later, Knautz filed for a protective order preventing Heider from attending the arbitration, saying that during discovery, he had learned that Heider had reinjured his knee in a subsequent car accident, despite statements to the contrary. He wanted to delay the arbitration to conduct further discovery, and because he had changed attorneys, but the plaintiff’s attorney refused to reschedule. The court denied Knautz’s motion, so he filed a motion for judicial determination of whether he could revoke his agreement to arbitrate. In that motion, he said the Illinois Uniform Arbitration Act did not apply because he had signed no written agreement to binding arbitration. The trial court disagreed, finding at Heider’s urging that the Act applies because Knautz agreed on the record during the September hearing that such an agreement existed, and because that hearing was written down and entered into the record. Knautz filed an interlocutory appeal.

After dismissing what it saw as a meritless jurisdictional argument by Heider, the Second District Court of Appeal turned to the merits of Knautz’s appeal. Knautz argued that he should not be compelled to use binding arbitration because he did not sign a formal written agreement to do so. In considering this, the court considered the plain language of the Act, which refers to “a written agreement” or “a provision in a written contract.” This language makes it clear that the Act was intended only to apply to written agreements, the Second wrote. In support, it cited multiple out-of-state cases based on very similar language, as the Illinois Act was adopted from the Uniform Arbitration Act. Furthermore, the court said, there is nothing in the transcript of the September hearing to suggest that the parties intended to make a binding contract to arbitrate.

That order was based on an oral agreement, the court said, and the common law says oral agreements to arbitrate may be revoked anytime before an award is entered. The Act does not abrogate that rule, the court wrote, so Knautz is entitled to revoke his agreement to arbitrate. In fact, it wrote, if it were to decide otherwise, “parties who choose to enter into only an oral agreement could never obtain an order staying trial court proceedings pending arbitration, for fear that such an order would be viewed as a written agreement subjecting them to the Act and thereby destroying the purpose of entering into only an oral agreement for arbitration.” Thus, it reversed the order to arbitrate and remanded the case to trial court.

Based in Chicago and Oakbrook Terrace, Lubin Austermuehle offers alternative dispute resolution services throughout the state of Illinois, including in Joilet, Schaumberg, Wheaton, Naperville, Evanston and Wilmette. OOur Elgin alternative dispute resolution attorneys can help resolve your matter quickly and decisively, whether that means in court or outside of it. If you’d like to know more about our experience and how we can help, please contact Lubin Austermuehle today for a free consultation at 630-333-0333 or send us an email.

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