TAMPA — In early 2009, parties in a lawsuit involving the Islamic Education Center of Tampa negotiated to select an arbitrator to resolve their case.
"The negotiation, simply limited to selecting an arbitrator, was unsuccessful," said a March 2010 joint motion by attorneys for both sides.
But in late 2010, a puzzling thing happened in a case in which the parties seemingly could not agree on arbitration.
An arbitration award surfaced.
The disputed award may decide a Hillsborough lawsuit against the mosque that got national attention when Judge Richard Nielsen said he would use Islamic law, sharia, to decide if arbitration was properly conducted.
But one overriding question is lost in the rancorous public debate about the judge's ruling.
Did arbitration really occur?
Education center attorney Paul Thanasides said earlier this week, "There is no doubt in my mind it never took place."
Attorneys for the men suing the center declined to comment on Friday. But they have told Nielsen that the center's officials repudiated an agreement to arbitrate upon learning the award was not in their favor.
Nielsen has not yet ruled on the arbitration's legitimacy.
The dispute began in 2002 when a change to the mosque's bylaws ended the practice of trustees serving for life.
The trustees ousted in the move — Ghassan Mansour, Abbas Hashemi, Hamid Faraji and Dr, Sam Hakki — sued individual mosque leaders in 2008.
On Jan. 17, 2009, Ghulam Hurr Shabbiri, an Islamic scholar from Houston, visited Tampa at the center's invitation for a lecture.
Before he left, Shabbiri met some parties in the litigation.
Shabbiri said he would arbitrate their dispute if they accepted it as binding and if the suit were "immediately withdrawn," a handwritten agreement said.
But there were problems with the agreement, most notably that just one of the four mosque leaders being sued signed it.
In fact, two defendants weren't even in the country, the Islamic Education Center says.
And the one leader who was present, trustee Salah Haraki, later testified the arbitration never took place because terms of the handwritten agreement were not met by the plaintiffs.
A second, formal arbitration agreement prepared by lawyers later circulated with the parties.
"We signed the document," Mansour, one of the plaintiffs, said in a deposition. He said the other side "refused to sign the document giving Shabbiri … their authority to resolve the case."
And yet a third proposed agreement to appoint an arbitrator circulated in June 2009. Defendants again refused to sign.
Why? For one, the suit hadn't been dismissed as demanded.
The suit against individual defendants was finally dismissed in July 2010 and refiled against the Islamic Education Center.
By December, both sides prepared for a January trial. (The trial was ultimately postponed.)
As they did so, one of the plaintiffs sent a Dec. 8 e-mail to Shabbiri, the arbitrator proposed two years previously.
Thanasides said in court filings the e-mail showed the arbitration award may have been drafted by the plaintiffs.
The mosque's leaders thought the e-mail proved the arbitrator was not impartial.
"Once you have the chance to study it and then you may rewrite it or keep it but please sign it with a notary then e-mail back to me or to our lawyer," Hakki, a plaintiff, told Shabbiri.
On Dec. 27, Shabbiri sent back his ruling against the mosque.
Lawyers for the ousted trustees quickly asked the judge to enforce the award.
But on Dec, 30, Shabbiri was having second thoughts. For one thing, he told Hakki, the case was continuing in court. And Shabbiri was reluctant to get involved in court proceedings.
Shabbiri also indicated that the other party in the arbitration — the mosque — had not participated, the center argued.
"Some necessary steps are not taken carefully before the decision. … I do not feel comfortable to be part of this case. … I cannot continue as an arbitrator."
But Shabbiri ultimately decided against withdrawing after he received reassurances that he wouldn't be "dragged" into court.
When he saw the decision, Thanasides said he was suspicious. Why would Shabbiri wait two years to rule? Thanasides also said the center's board of directors had not authorized participation in arbitration.
And what about the communication between attorneys for both sides fruitlessly trying to arrange an arbitration months after one supposedly occurred?
Lawyers for the ousted trustees said their clients had not told them of the arbitration until long after it occurred.
They also told the judge Shabbiri's opinion was delayed because, until late 2010, he thought issuing a written award was "a waste of effort" due to the center's intent to repudiate the agreement to arbitrate.
Some present at the Jan. 17, 2009 visit by Shabbiri dispute his account of what took place. (Shabbiri declined to comment.)
Nadile Amar, who was not a party to litigation, signed the first handwritten arbitration agreement as a witness.
He told the judge he was certain no arbitration took place.
When he saw Shabbiri's decision, Amar said he told an ousted trustee, "This is not what I put my name on. … This is not right."
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.