Administratively Closing a Case is Not the Same as Dismissing the Case

Freeman v. Pittsburgh Glass Works, LLC, 709 F.3d 240 (3d Cir. 2013).  This appeal involved plaintiff’s assertion that an arbitration award should be vacated because the arbitrator was biased.  The district court rejected that argument.  On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed in an opinion by Judge Smith.  The panel ultimately found that the bias claim was without merit.

Before getting there, though, the court addressed two procedural issues.  First, defendant argued that the fact that the district court marked the case “CLOSED” when, during the course of plaintiff’s lawsuit, the parties agreed to binding arbitration, meant that the district court thereby lost jurisdiction over the case and could not rule on plaintiff’s motion to vacate.  Correlatively, therefore, plaintiff could not appeal that ruling.  Judge Smith rebuffed that contention.  Citing prior opinions of the Third Circuit and other courts, and after an extensive discussion, he held that an administrative closure of a case is not a dismissal that deprives the district court of jurisdiction.  Rather, it is an administrative device useful in pruning “overgrown dockets” and causing files for cases likely to be in stasis for some time to be transferred to an appropriate storage repository.  This conclusion was especially appropriate here since the closure never used any form of the word “dismissal” and, as Judge Smith pithily put it, “words matter.”

Second, defendant contended that plaintiff had waived his claim of “evident partiality” of the arbitrator because he did not raise that issue before the arbitrator herself.  Plaintiff argued that he had no way to know about the partiality until thereafter because the relevant information had been withheld from him.  Judge Smith found no need to address the waiver issue because defendant had waived its own waiver argument by failing to present it to the district court.  The opinion noted the general rule that an issue not raised below is waived, as well as the fact that there are exceptions to that principle.  The panel enforced the waiver rule here, and held that defendant had waived its waiver argument.  No wavering about that.