Second Circuit: No U.S. Discovery for Private International Arbitration

By Yixian Sun

Does 28 U.S.C. §1782(a), which authorizes “any interested person” in a proceeding before a “foreign or international tribunal” to ask for and receive discovery from a person in the United States, cover private international arbitration tribunals? (Full text available at https://bit.ly/3fvtr8z .)

This is a hot issue in the arbitration world, with cases sprinkled throughout the federal courts. In the latest decision, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held last week that arbitration isn’t covered by Section 1782. In re Application and Petition of Hanwei Gup for an Order to take Discovery for Use in a Foreign Proceeding Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1782 (Guo v. Deutsche Bank Securities Inc.), No. 19-781, 2020 WL 3816098 (2d Cir. July 8, 2020), as amended (July 9, 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/38SLd) (Guo).

And that move aggravates a circuit split created in recent months that points to the U.S. Supreme Court in an area that a year ago was considered settled law.

For more than two decades, the answer to the question on Section 1782’s applicability to private arbitral tribunals has been a firm “no.” In National Broadcasting Co. v. Bear Stearns & Co., 165 F.3d 184 (2nd Cir. 1999) (available at https://bit.ly/2UcWfdq) (“NBC”), the Second Circuit held that the phrase “foreign or international tribunal” does not encompass “arbitral bod[ies] established by private parties,” id. at 191. The Fifth Circuit quickly reached the same conclusion in Republic of Kazakhstan v. Biedermann Int’l, 168 F.3d 880 (5th Cir. 1999) (available at https://bit.ly/3gViPB0).

But the tide is turning. In 2019 and 2020, the Sixth Circuit and Fourth Circuit each decided that a private, party-contracted international arbitration panel constituted “tribunals” under Section 1782, in In re Application to Obtain Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings (Abdul Latif Jameel Transp. Co. v. FedEx Corp.), 939 F.3d 710 (6th Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2AFPIB9) and Servotronics Inc. v. Boeing Co., 954 F.3d 209 (4th Cir. 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/3h7s0P8), thereby breaking with its sister circuits.

In the new July/August edition of Alternatives, and in an online discussion with Alternatives’ Editor Russ Bleemer, John B. Pinney, a senior trial lawyer at Graydon, in Cincinnati, provided an in-depth explanation on the changing landscape on this seemingly settled legal issue. See CPR Speaks for the discussion, the article, and links to the cases, at https://bit.ly/3gxyPIG.

Lying in the background of this debate is Intel Corp. v. Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., 542 U.S. 241 (2004) ((available at https://bit.ly/2zamp9C), the only Section 1782 case considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Intel, writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg held that the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition constituted a “foreign or international tribunal” within the meaning of Section 1782.

Intel did not directly address the issue of whether a private international tribunal is a “foreign or international tribunal.” Ginsberg’s opinion, however, cited a 1965 law review article written by Columbia Law School’s Professor Hans Smit, who has participated in the amendment of Section 1782: “the term ‘tribunal’ … includes investigating magistrates, administrative and arbitral tribunals, and quasi-judicial agencies, as well as conventional civil, commercial, criminal, and administrative courts.” Id. at 248-49 (citing Hans Smit, International Litigation Under the United States Code, 65 Colum. L. Rev. 1015, 1026, n.71 (1965)).

The Intel court’s favorable reference to Smit’s expanded interpretation of “foreign or international tribunals” was used by the Sixth Circuit as an additional support of its inclusion of private international arbitration under Section 1782. In re Application to Obtain Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings, 939 F.3d at 724.

This fact was also heavily relied upon by the petitioner in the new Second Circuit Guo decision. As noted, the panel rejected the petitioner’s reasoning, and concluded that “nothing in the Supreme Court’s Intel decision alters [its] prior conclusion in NBC that §1782 (a) does not extend to private international commercial arbitrations.” In re Guo, at *2.

* * *

In 2018, Hanwei Guo initiated arbitration against Guomin Xie, Tencent Music, and several other entities before the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission, best known as CIETAC. Id. at *4.

According to Guo, Xie and other respondents, through a series of fraudulent transactions, led him into selling his shares in the companies that later became part of Tencent Music for less than the shares allegedly were worth. Guo asked for compensation and asked to have his equity stake restored. The parties selected an arbitral panel in April 2019, and the matters are still pending. Id. at *3-5.

In December 2018, Guo filed a petition for discovery for information from four underwriters related to Tencent Music’s IPO pursuant to Section 1782 in New York’s  Southern District Court. Following the NBC precedent and determining that the nature of CIETAC is closer to a “private arbitral body,” the SDNY denied Guo’s application in February 2019. In re Application of Hanwei Guo for an Order to Take Discovery for Use in a Foreign Proceeding Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1782, 2019 WL 917076, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 25, 2019).

The Second Circuit affirmed last week. According to the panel, private international commercial arbitrations are still barred from proceedings under Section 1782 even in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Intel decision. The panel also determined that the arbitration before CIETAC is indeed a “non-covered, private, international commercial arbitration.” In re Guo, at *1-2.

Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Debra A. Livingston offered several reasons in defending why NBC remains good law.

The Second Circuit recounted the NBC-Intel history, and tackled the recent Fourth and Sixth Circuit cases going the other way, finding that Section 1782 applied to private arbitrations. 

Judge Livingston noted that the Intel court’s “fleeting reference” of “arbitral tribunals” is merely dicta. Id. at *17. Even if this reference had any legal significance, she added that under Section 1782, “‘arbitral tribunals’ does not necessarily encompass private tribunals,” because even Prof. Smit stated that “an international tribunal owes both its existence and its powers to an international agreement.” Id. (Quoting Hans Smit, Assistance Rendered by the United States in Proceedings Before International Tribunals, 62 Columbia L. Rev. 1264, 1267 (1962); the opinion also points to NBC, 165 F.3d at 189 (citing Smit’s 1962 article)).

Moreover, according to the Second Circuit panel, the legislative history does not warrant recognition of private international arbitration as “tribunals” under Section 1782. While Congress introduced the phrase “foreign or international tribunal” in order to expand the provision’s earlier formulation (which permitted for assistance only for “judicial proceeding[s] in any court in a foreign country”), a survey of House and Senate reports did not reveal the legislators’ intention to promote a “much more dramatic expansion into private arbitration.” Id. at *18-19. (Emphasis is the Second Circuit’s.)

The Second Circuit then found that the CIETAC arbitration did not qualify as an arbitration under a state-sponsored adjudicatory body, noting that “district court correctly concluded that the CIETAC arbitration is a private international commercial arbitration outside the scope of § 1782(a)’s ‘proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal’ requirement.”

In doing so, Judge Livingston analyzed whether “the [arbitral] body in question possesses the functional attributes most commonly associated with private arbitration.”

Several factors were taken into account. First, CIETAC, evolving from a government-sponsored entity, now “possesses a high degree of independence and autonomy” in its administration of arbitral cases, “and, conversely, a low degree of state affiliation.” Id. at *21-22.

Second, the power possessed by the Chinese government to “intervene to alter the outcome of an arbitration after the [CIETAC] panel has rendered a decision” is limited. In fact, such power is similar to that possessed by a U.S. court in setting aside or enforcing a private arbitration award under the Federal Arbitration Act and its incorporation of the New York Convention on the enforcement of international arbitration awards. Id. at *22-24.

Third, the CIETAC panel derives its jurisdiction “exclusively from the agreement of the parties,” rather than “any governmental grant of authority.” Id. at *24.

Finally, the ability of the parties to select their own arbitrators further suggests the private status of the CIETAC arbitration. Id. at *24-25.

* * *

The Second Circuit’s ruling mirrors the Fifth Circuit opinion in El Paso Corp. v. La Comision Ejecutiva Hidroelectrica Del Rio Lempa, 341 F. App’x 31 (5th Cir. 2009) (unpublished) (Available at https://bit.ly/3gXOTU7). There, the Fifth Circuit held that Intel has no negative effect on its Biedermann analysis, and concluded that a private Swiss arbitral tribunal did not constitute a “tribunal” within Section 1782. Id. at *34.

Judge Livingston also responded to the more-recent contrary rulings made by the Sixth and the Fourth Circuits. She pointed out that the Sixth Circuit never said that Intel compels a ruling allowing discovery for private arbitration. Rather, it held that such a way of understanding “was merely consistent” with Intel. In re Guo, at *17 (emphasis is the Second Circuit’s); see also In re Application to Obtain Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings, 939 F.3d at 725-26.

The Fourth Circuit’s Servotronics opinion, on the other hand, was based on the finding that the U.K. arbitration at issue was a “product of government-conferred authority,” thereby falling into the same framework as the Second and the Fifth Circuits which limited § 1782 to tribunals “acting with the authority of the State.” In re Guo at *14 (quoting Servotronics, 954 F.3d at 214).

Indeed, the Intel decision neither compelled, nor rejected, the inclusion of private international commercial arbitration under Section 1782.

Therefore, before a directly on-point Supreme Court opinion, lower courts are free to make their own judgments, according to their own statutory construction methodologies, policy considerations, and factors considered in determining the nature of a foreign tribunal.

The Second Circuit relies more on legislative history in understanding the scope of “tribunals,” but the Sixth Circuit uses a textualist approach and looks into the usage of “tribunals” in legal writings. Compare In re Application to Obtain Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings, 939 F.3d at 726-28, with In re Guo at *18-19.

The Second Circuit fears that allowing discovery would decrease the efficiency and the cost-effectiveness of private arbitration, whereas the Sixth Circuit appear to dismiss such concerns. Compare In re Application to Obtain Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings, 939 F.3d at 728, with In re Guo at *11. The Second Circuit believes that the fact that arbitrations are sanctioned, regulated and judicially supervised by the national authority does not suffice to make them “state-sponsored,” while the Fourth Circuit holds the contrary. Compare Servotronics, Inc. v. Boeing Co., 954 F.3d at 214-15, with In re Guo at *21-26.

* * *

One thing seems to be certain. A Supreme Court response is strongly called for. In a motion to stay issuance of the mandate, Rolls-Royce, the appellee in the Fourth Circuit’s Servotronics decision, represented that it intended to file a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court.

Now that the Second Circuit refuses to change its position, author John Pinney predicted that the odds of the Supreme Court granting certiorari would increase. John B. Pinney, “Will the Supreme Court Take Up Allowing Discovery Under Section 1782 for Private International Arbitrations?” 38 Alternatives 103 (July/August 2020) (available in multiple formats at https://bit.ly/2ZwUt8N).

Other commentators, share similar expectations with Pinney. See, e.g., David Zaslowsky, “Second Circuit Holds That Section 1782 Discovery is Not Available in Aid of Private International Commercial Arbitration,” Global Arbitration News (July 10, 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/2CDUzne). Stay tuned for the next development.

* * *

The author, a second-year Harvard Law School student, is a 2020 CPR Institute Summer Intern.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s