Phillips v. Garcia (6/9/2015)

June 30, 2015

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that an arbitrator’s filing of an award in the superior court does not create an enforceable judgment in compulsory arbitration cases.

After prevailing in an arbitration governed under Arizona’s compulsory arbitration rules, the creditor submitted a document to the arbitrator entitled “Judgment.”  The arbitrator signed the document and filed it with the superior court.  The purported judgment awarded damages but, although filed, it was never signed by a superior court judge or commissioner, and the creditor never filed for entry of judgment.  Some months later, the judgment-creditor (or so he thought) sought to compel the defendant to sit for a judgment-debtor’s exam.  The debtor refused and filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that there was no valid judgment against him.  The trial court denied the motion and the debtor appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the creditor still needed to apply for a judgment from the superior court.  Under Rule 76(a) (governing the compulsory arbitration process), an arbitrator makes two separate filings to finalize an arbitration award:  a “notice of decision” and an “award.”  The “award,” however, is not a final, enforceable judgment.  Under Rule 76(c), after appeal deadlines expire, any party may “file to have judgment entered on the award.”  If no party applies for entry of judgment “within 120 days after the arbitrator’s decision, and no appeal is pending,” Rule 76(d) requires that “the case shall be dismissed.” 

Applying these rules, the Court held that the purported “Judgment” awarding the creditor damages and attorneys fees was “correctly understood” to be the “award” and not a “true judgment.”  As contemplated in Rule 76(c), the creditor had yet to “file to have judgment entered.”  And because more than 120 days had lapsed since the arbitrator’s decision, the Court agreed that the case should be dismissed. 

The creditor argued that the “Judgment” document was a valid judgment under A.R.S. § 12-133(E), the statute governing the compulsory arbitration process.  That statute states that an “award” shall be “filed with the court,” the “court shall enter the award in its record of judgments,” and the “award has the effect of a judgment on the parties.”   After noting some tension between the statute and Rule 76, the Court held that a “true judgment requires an affirmative act by the court”—a mere filing from the arbitrator would not suffice.

Judge Gemmill authored the unanimous opinion; Judges Jones and Kessler concurred.