United States Submits Amicus Brief in Servotronics International Arbitration Supreme Court Case

By Cai Phillips-Jones

Multiple parties have filed briefs concerning arbitration discovery rules in a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court for fall argument, Servotronics v. Rolls Royce, No. 794 (see the Court’s official docket at https://bit.ly/3ysbMrL).  

In the case, the Court will decide the question of whether federal district courts can assist with obtaining evidence in foreign arbitration cases at the parties’ request. The argument date has not yet been set.

The U.S. Solicitor General’s office in the Justice Department has filed an amicus brief advocating on behalf of the U.S. government for a narrow interpretation of 28 U.S.C. 1782, a law that has created a split among federal circuit courts. The law allows circuit courts to authorize discovery for litigation originating in “foreign tribunals,” including compelling testimony from witnesses residing in the United States. 

But circuit courts have not been able to agree about whether the law pertains to arbitration taking place in foreign countries: The Fourth and Sixth U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals support court involvement in discovery for these arbitrations under Section 1782, and the Second, Fifth and Seventh Circuits reject this interpretation of the law.

The Fourth and Seventh Circuits both heard the same Servotronics case that is now on the Supreme Court docket. The circuit courts reached opposite conclusions. For background on the cases’ paths and how the current Seventh Circuit case made it to the Supreme Court, see Amy Foust, “The Next Arbitration Matter: Supreme Court Agrees to Decide Extent of Foreign Tribunal Evidence Powers,” CPR Speaks (March 22) (available at https://bit.ly/36cp27K), and “YouTube Analysis: What Happens Next with the 3/22 Servotronics Cert Grant on Foreign Arbitration Evidence,” CPR Speaks (March 22) (available at https://bit.ly/3jLbVT3).

CPR, which publishes CPR Speaks, submitted an amicus brief in support of the Servotronics certiorari request in January, which also was the subject of an amicus brief by the Atlanta International Arbitration Society. Since the petition was granted, 11 additional amicus briefs, including the brief of the Solicitor General’s office, have been filed.

Of the group, two state that they do no support either party–those of Prof. Yanbai Andrea Wang, of Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, who asks the Court to clarify the scope of Section 1782, previously interpreted in the Intel case discussed below; and the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce, which discusses the ICC’s international law views.

Two briefs support the petitioner, submitted on behalf of Columbia Law School Prof. George A. Bermann; and Palo Alto, Calif.-based ADR provider Federal Arbitration Inc.

Seven of the briefs support the respondent in seeking a narrow scope for Section 1782 discovery to exclude international arbitrations. In addition to the U.S. government’s brief, they include briefs submitted on behalf of China and Hong Kong-based arbitrators Dr. Xu Guojian, Li Hongji, Zhu Yongrui, Tang Qingyang, Chi Manjiao, Ronald Sum, and Dr. Zhang Guanglei; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable; International Arbitration Center in Tokyo;  the General Aviation Manufacturers Association Inc. and the Aerospace Industries Association; Halliburton Co., which is facing a Section 1782 issue in a separate case, and the Institute of International Bankers, a New York City-based industry association of international banks operating in the United States.

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In its brief, the government reviews the history of requests for discovery from foreign parties.

According to the amicus brief, prior to 1855, federal courts did not have the authority to compel a witness to testify in a case involving a foreign state party. In 1855, an act was passed by Congress to remedy this, but in a strange twist this law was subsequently “buried in oblivion” due to “a succession of errors in indexing and revising the statutes” and lost to the courts. A similar law was passed in 1877 and, in 1948, the law was broadened to include discovery for non-state parties.

In 1964, the language in the law was broadened again, applying to “a proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal” compared to the previous version’s “any judicial proceeding in any court in a foreign country.” Since then, only one Supreme Court case has discussed the scope of the law, Intel Corp. v. Advanced Micro Devices Inc., 542 U.S. 241 (2004).

The case concerned the distinction between judicial and administrative processes and whether Section 1782 applied to the latter. The Court found it applied. But recently, disagreement  has sprung up about whether the “foreign tribunal” language includes arbitrations involving foreign parties. The U.S. government has now taken the position that the law should not apply to private foreign arbitrations.

In its brief, United States argues (1) that such discovery functions were not within the scope of Congress’ intent when it passed 28 U.S.C 1782; (2) that interpreting the law to apply to international commercial arbitrations would create asymmetry with the domestic rules of arbitration incorporated in the Federal Arbitration Act; and (3) such an interpretation would create additional problems if extended to investor-state arbitration.

Noting that previous versions of the law clearly referred to only courts, the government acknowledges that the 1964 revision changed this language from “any judicial proceeding in any court in a foreign country,” to “a proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal.” This change, according to the government, and in contrast to the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation, was “only a measured expansion of the provision’s scope to capture quasi-judicial entities (such as investigating magistrates) and certain intergovernmental bodies (such as state-to-state claims commissions).” As the government points out, at the time the 1964 law was passed, international commercial arbitration was still novel, and thus likely outside Congress’s intent.

The government’s second argument discusses the incongruence of the limited discovery available under the FAA to arbitrators, in contrast to the discovery requests available to parties under Section 1782. Interpreting the law to apply to commercial arbitrations would “[allow] more expansive discovery in foreign disputes than what is permitted domestically,” the government’s amicus brief states.

While the court acknowledges that Section 1782 is not coextensive with domestic discovery rules, the “stake asymmetry” produced by a broad interpretation of the law “should [be taken] into account” in determining the law’s scope.

Finally, the government discusses a particular type of arbitration, investor-state arbitration, which gives investors who have claims against a foreign state in which they held an investment a private remedy for losses allegedly caused by the state. Arbitration in this context replaced a more time-consuming and expensive process, diplomatic protection, involving a government negotiating a resolution on behalf of one of its citizens who has suffered an economic injury.

The solicitor general’s amicus brief argues that investor-state arbitrations would be hampered by additional discovery procedures and “upset settled expectations” of investor and state parties entering contracts.

The U.S. government, in addition to filing a brief, has requested permission from the court to argue the case with the parties this fall The Court has not yet acted on the oral argument request, which is expected to be granted.

Meantime, the underlying arbitration in Servotronics has been conducted in London the week of May 10. If a decision emerges before the Court hears the arguments, the existence of an arbitration award could raise questions of mootness.

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The author, a J.D. student who will enter his third year this fall at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, is a 2021 CPR Summer Intern.

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