By Xin Judy Wang
A three-judge Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel has made the unusual move of urging the full circuit to convene en banc to overturn its precedents addressing vacatur of arbitral awards.
Part of a minority among circuits, an Eleventh Circuit panel on May 27 limited the basis for vacating an international arbitral award only to the seven grounds enumerated in Art. V of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, best known as the New York Convention. Deference to the New York Convention makes Alabama, Florida, and Georgia—the states covered by the Eleventh Circuit–attractive forums for international arbitration.
But this deferential position may soon change.
In Corporacion AIC, S.A. v. Hidroelectrica Santa Rita S.A., the Eleventh Circuit panel reluctantly affirmed the district court’s determination that it cannot vacate an international arbitral award on the “exceeding powers” ground. No. 20-13039 (11th Cir. May. 27, 2022) (available at https://bit.ly/3zuLRDi).
Stating it was “powerless to change the course as a three-judge panel,” the opinion, by Senior Circuit Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat, encouraged the appeals court to convene en banc to overturn its precedents, “and hold that under a correct understanding of Supreme Court precedent the exceeding powers ground is a valid basis for vacatur under both the New York Convention and the [Federal Arbitration Act].”
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The parties to the dispute are two Guatemalan companies, Corporacion AIC, or AICSA, and Hidrolectrica Santa Rita, referred to as HSR below. The parties signed a March 2012 contract to construct a hydroelectric power plant in Guatemala, but had to discontinue the project when HSR issued a force majeure notice in response to fierce opposition by the local community—excusing performance and canceling the contract.
HSR then sought reimbursement for advance payments and commenced arbitration proceedings in the International Court of Arbitration. The arbitration, held in Miami, resulted in an order that AICSA return about $7 million and about €435,000 to HSR. AICSA was allowed to keep its earnings pursuant to the contract, about $2.5 million and about €700,000.
Dissatisfied with the decision, AICSA filed suit in Florida’s Southern U.S. District Court, petitioning to vacate the award because “the arbitration panel had exceeded its powers.”
The “exceeding powers” ground is not enumerated in the New York Convention. Instead, it comes from 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(4)–the Chapter 1 Federal Arbitration Act provision on overturning awards. The district court denied the petition, citing Eleventh Circuit precedents that the New York Convention–codified by FAA Chapter 2–exclusively governs vacatur of an international arbitral award.
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The Eleventh Circuit first adopted its deferential position in the 1998 case Industrial Risk Insurers v. M.A.N. Gutehoffnungshutte GmbH, 141 F.3d 1434 (11th Cir. 1998) (available at https://bit.ly/3O8XAf6). In Industrial Risk, the appellate court explained that the New York Convention’s defenses against enforcing an international arbitral award are “exclusive.” On similar facts of foreign parties arbitrating in Florida, the circuit declined to consider a ground of vacatur not explicitly mentioned in the New York Convention.
The circuit last confirmed this deference in Inversiones y Procesadora Tropical INPROTSA, S.A. v. Del Monte Int’l GmbH., 921 F.3d 1291 (11th Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3HfcoWY). Also addressing an arbitration between two foreign corporations in Florida, the panel confirmed the binding force of Industrial Risk in the circuit.
In the opinion, Senior Circuit Judge Tjoflat critiqued Industrial Risk, noting that the decision did not consider whether a non-enumerated vacatur ground from domestic law may be used under New York Convention Art. V(1)(e), which states,
(1) Recognition and enforcement of the award may be refused, at the request of the party against whom it is invoked, only if that party furnishes to the competent authority where the recognition and enforcement is sought, proof that:
. . . .
(e) The award has not yet become binding on the parties, or has been set aside or suspended by a competent authority of the country in which, or under the law of which, that award was made. [Emphasis added in this post.]
The panel reads V(1)(e) as allowing national courts to vacate an award based on domestic grounds when the forum is either the seat of arbitration or when its law is applied.
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According to the Corporacion AIC panel, this reading of V(1)(e) depends on recognizing the distinction between primary and secondary jurisdiction. A forum has primary jurisdiction when it is the location of the arbitral award or when its law is used to decide the arbitration dispute.
A forum has secondary jurisdiction when the forum’s court is not the seat of arbitration and thus may only refuse to enforce, rather than annul an award. Therefore, when, as here, the United States is the arbitration seat, a U.S. forum has primary jurisdiction to vacate the award on domestic grounds.
The panel opinion draws support from the Supreme Court case BG Group PLC v. Republic of Argentina, 572 U.S. 25 (2014) (available at https://bit.ly/3OwTopJ) (Argentina sought to vacate an award on the basis that the arbitrators lacked jurisdiction and thus “exceed their powers” under FAA 10(a)(4)). In BG Group, the Court noted that for a motion to vacate a U.S. award, federal courts should normally interpret a treaty’s intent by applying presumptions supplied by U.S. law. The Corporacion AIC panel reads this comment as a “[nod] to the idea of primary jurisdiction” by conferring a special reviewing power to the arbitration forum.
The panel boosts this distinction by pointing to a country’s heightened interest in the outcome of an award when that country’s laws are being used or when it is the location of arbitration. It goes on to suggest that a state should have a mechanism to ensure an award’s validity when the award is issued in its jurisdiction. Limiting grounds of vacatur strictly to those enumerated in the Convention would constitute “meddling with national procedure for handling domestic awards,” citing a Second Circuit case, Yusuf Ahmed Alghanim & Sons v. Toys “R” Us Inc., 126 F.3d 15, 22 (2d Cir. 1997) (available here).
More specifically, the Corporacion AIC panel reads BG Group to have applied the “exceeding power” ground in its vacatur analysis (the Supreme Court opinion stated that it could not “agree with Argentina that the arbitrators exceeded their powers in concluding they had jurisdiction.”) Though not the key BG Group opinion focus, the Eleventh Circuit panel reads this comment as the Supreme Court’s implicit endorsement of applying vacatur grounds not expressly mentioned in the New York Convention.
This is not the first time the Eleventh Circuit has adopted such a reading of BG Group. In the 2017 case Bamberger Rosenheim Ltd., (Israel) v. OA Dev. Inc., (United States), the circuit cited BG Group and “assumed without deciding” that FAA Chapter 1 applied to international arbitral awards. 862 F.3d 1284, 1287 n.2 (11th Cir. 2017) (available at https://bit.ly/3O950yG).
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Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote a Corporacion AIC concurrence taking a different path that reached back to the Convention’s 1958 adoption. He agreed with the majority opinion that Industrial Risk and Inversiones were wrongly decided, and the appeals court should apply FAA § 10 grounds to vacate a New York Convention award.
The disagreement lies in his rationale. He applied FAA § 10 not because the vacatur standards are incorporated into the New York Convention through Art. V(1)(e), but rather that § 10 should apply, as domestic law, directly to the vacatur of an international award made in the United States.
The New York Convention draws from two earlier treaties, the 1923 Geneva Protocol on Arbitration Clauses and the 1927 Geneva Convention on the Execution of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The former mandated award enforcement only in the seat of arbitration, and the latter broadened its scope by providing for award recognition and enforcement in countries other than the seat.
The problem with the two Geneva Treaties was “double exequatur,” referring to the Geneva Convention’s requirement that an award can only be recognized and enforced (in countries other than the seat) if it was already “final in the country in which it ha[d] been made.” This created an extra hurdle for international enforcement of arbitral awards. The New York Convention eliminated the double exequatur by no longer requiring the seat’s recognition for enforcement elsewhere.
Circuit Judge Jordan recognized this significant modification but maintained that the New York Convention left intact the binary framework of the Geneva Treaties. There remain different responsibilities and authorities between the arbitral seat and other states. The arbitral seat can vacate an award, but other States may only recognize and enforce an award (which parallels the majority opinion’s definition of primary and secondary jurisdiction). Jordan drew attention to the Convention’s text–Art. V(1) starts with “Recognition and enforcement of the award may be refused. …” Therefore, Art. V(1)(e) only addresses recognition and enforcement in other states. Jordan’s opinion states that the New York Convention (and its counterpart, FAA Chapter 2) do not enumerate the grounds on which a court can vacate an international arbitral award.
Accordingly, to “fill the gap” of the New York Convention, vacatur should be governed by domestic law. Jordan cited the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court international arbitration case of GE Energy Power Conversion Fr. SAS Corp. v. Outokumpu Stainless USA, 140 S. Ct. 1637 (available at https://bit.ly/3xKmpHJ) (“the New York Convention was drafted against the backdrop of domestic law” and “the Convention requires courts to rely on domestic law to fill [its gaps]”).
Circuit Judge Jordan also looked to the United Kingdom and Switzerland’s permission to challenge international arbitral awards on native grounds. He suggested that the FAA’s 9 U.S.C § 208, on the FAA’s application, was drafted to reflect this binary framework. Courts, the concurrence suggests, should apply domestic law for award vacatur for arbitrations held in the United States (§ 208 – “Chapter 1 applies to actions and proceedings … to the extent that chapter is not in conflict with this chapter or the [New York Convention]. . . .”).
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As recognized by Circuit Judge Jordan’s concurrence, the number of international arbitrations has been rising in the Eleventh Circuit. The circuit’s deference to the New York Convention for award enforcement likely plays an important role in its popularity.
It is unusual for a panel to urge a rehearing en banc to overturn circuit precedents, especially when the majority and concurrence provide two different routes for the basis of overturning the precedents. How Corporacion AIC will continue to develop in the circuit or at the U.S. Supreme Court will significantly affect international arbitration in the circuit and beyond.
Attorneys for the parties did not immediately reply to email requests for comment.
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The author, who will be a second-year student at Columbia University Law School in New York this fall, is a 2022 CPR intern.