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Court holds law firm managers cannot apply arbitration agreement to individual dispute

When Dean Altobelli wanted to leave his lawfirm, Miller Canfield, to become an assistant football coach at Alabama, he hoped to retain his formal partnership interest in the firm, and take only a "leave of absence."  The firm had never allowed a partner to take an "outside" full-time job, and did not act quickly to approve the unusual arrangement for Altobelli.  When he left to assume the Alabama position, the firm's managing partners deemed him to have voluntarily withdrawn from the partnership, and Altobelli objected.  They became engaged in a dispute over compensation, and eventually Altobelli sued the individual managing partners. 

The partners argued that the suit should be dismissed because Altobelli had signed a partnership agreement that mandated arbitration of all disputes.  The trial court ruled that by its express terms, the agreement applied only to disputes to which "the firm" was a party, and therefore Altobelli was not precluded from suing individual partners.  It then went one step further and ruled that the partnership agreement made no provision for "voluntary withdrawal," meaning that the partners were liable, as a matter of law, for terminating his interest.

The firm appealed.  This week the Court of Appeals agreed that it was bound by the terms of the agreement, which expressly governed only disputes involving "the firm."  It overturned the trial judge's summary disposition in Altobelli's favor, however, ruling that the firm raised a question of fact with regard to whether Altobelli had voluntarily withdrawn from the partnership when he stopped coming to work at the firm and assumed employment duties at the University of Alabama.

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