Is an Arbitrator in a civil matter immune from a party’s claim of negligence that occurs during the arbitration proceeding?  This is the question that was recently asked in a case heard before the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court.   In the case of Malik v. Ruttenberg (Docket No. A-6615-06T3), the Appellate Division of the State of New Jersey was presented with a situation where an attorney involved in the arbitration allegedly assaulted one of the parties.   The party involved had previously asked the Arbitrator to remove this attorney from the proceedings.   This request was denied by the Arbitrator and the assault allegedly took place during a recess outside of the arbitration room.
 
The party that was allegedly assaulted brought an action against the American Arbitration Association and the Arbitrator, claiming that they knew of this attorney’s dangerous tendencies but failed to exercise reasonable care to control these tendencies.  The American Arbitration Association and the Arbitrator sought dismissal of the complaint based upon a claim of immunity under N.J.S.A. 2A: 23B -14. 
 
The Appellate Division noted that whether a common law or statutory immunity applies to a party is a question of law.   If an immunity applies and bars civil liability, it trumps any theory of negligence.  In its analysis, the Court noted that there are few doctrines that were more solidly established at common law than the immunity of judges from liability for damage for acts committed within their judicial jurisdiction.  This immunity is necessary for the independent and impartial exercise of judicial judgment that is vital to the judiciary.  The opinion of the Court noted that the common law extended absolute judicial immunity to the work of quasi-judicial figures such as arbitrators.  An alleged wrongful act does not expose a judge to liability so long as the act was undertaken in an official capacity and an arbitrator is similarly protected.
 
The Appellate Court found that an Arbitrator’s duty to control the proceedings was clearly within the scope of a judicial function.  The acts of the Arbitrator were found to be protected by judicial immunity, as was the arbitral organization in its job of administering an arbitration.  In finding that "immunity trumps liability" the Appellate Division dismissed the complaint filed against the Arbitrator and the American Arbitration Association.