Second Circuit Backs Overturning Award That Had Been Annulled At Arbitral Seat

By Ugonna Kanu

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this summer affirmed a New York Southern District federal court decision to vacate the trial court’s previous enforcement of an arbitral award after the award was annulled at its seat in Malaysia.

In Thai-Lao Lignite (Thailand) Co., Ltd. v. Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Docket Nos. 14-597, 12-1052, 14-1497 (2d Cir. July 20, 2017)(available at http://bit.ly/2wS9HpS)(available at http://bit.ly/2vKDHnE), a commercial dispute arose between Thai-Lao Lignite (Thailand) with its subsidiary, Hongsa Lignite (Lao PDR), and the Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which the parties submitted to arbitration in Malaysia.

According to the Second Circuit opinion, in the 2009 Kuala Lumpur arbitration, a panel of three U.S. lawyers conducting the matter under the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law Arbitration Rules found the defendants—the government of Laos–in breach over a dispute on mining rights the defendants had granted to the mining company petitioners.

The tribunal awarded the petitioners about $57 million.

The case, the opinion states, addresses “how a district court should adjudicate a motion to vacate a judgment that it has entered enforcing a foreign arbitral award, when that award has later been set aside by courts in the arbitral seat.” It examines the interaction between a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) motion and the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, better known as the New York Convention.

After a period for challenging the award expired, the petitioners successfully brought enforcement proceedings in the United States and United Kingdom. But almost a year after the award, the defendants applied at the Malaysian courts for the award to be set aside on the grounds that the arbitrators exceeded their jurisdiction by addressing disputes under contracts not covered by the relevant arbitration agreement.

The motion setting aside the award was granted in 2012. Then, returning to the United States, the defendants moved to vacate the order enforcing the award.

U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood relied on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), in which the court can relieve a party from a final judgment if the judgment is based on an earlier judgement that has been vacated or reversed.

Wood analyzed the FRCP in conjunction with the New York Convention Article V(1)(e), which gives courts the discretion to refuse to recognize or enforce an award on party’s request under specific circumstances. In 2011, a year after confirming the award, Wood vacated the judgment to enforce, following the Malaysian nullification.

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed Wood’s decision to vacate her original judgment. In backing the district court decision, the Second Circuit referred to the clash between the federal rules and the convention. The appellate decision cited TermoRio S.A. E.S.P. v. Electranta S.P., 487 F.3d 928 (D.C. Cir. 2007)(available at http://bit.ly/2vR2S7S), where a unanimous panel, in an opinion written by Circuit Judge Susan L. Carney, noted that the convention’s “text appears to leave the District Court with discretion to enforce an award that has been annulled in the primary jurisdiction—after all, it does not say that enforcement of the award ‘must’ be refused—[but] held . . . that the scope of that discretion is ‘constrained by the prudential concern of international comity.’”

The Thai-Lao Lignite opinion endorsed TermoRio, where the D.C Circuit affirmed a decision denying enforcement of an annulled award, stating “when a competent foreign court has nullified a foreign arbitration award, United States courts should not go behind that decision absent extraordinary circumstances.” (Quoting the TermoRio appellees’ brief).  The D.C. Circuit said the exception to enforcement would be where a judgment is contrary to U.S. public policy.

The Second Circuit opinion notes that TermoRio followed the Second Circuit view on foreign awards in Baker Marine Ltd. v. Chevron Ltd., 191 F.3d 194 (2d Cir.  1999)(available at http://bit.ly/2uQIFBN). In Baker, the appellate court upheld the district court’s refusal to enforce an award that had been annulled in Nigeria, the arbitration seat, because to do otherwise would give a losing party “every reason to pursue its adversary with enforcement actions from country to country until a court is found, if any, which grants the enforcement.”

The result would be a loss of finality and conflicting judgments, as well as overall difficulty in maintaining a uniform and predictable arbitral framework and to prevent producing regularly conflicting judgments.

The Second Circuit’s Thai-Lao Lignite opinion suggested that the result would have been different if the decision of the foreign court was contrary to the “fundamental notions of what is decent and just” in the United States.  It based this public policy exception on Corporación Mexicana de Mantenimiento Integral, S. De R.L. de C.V. v. Pemex-Exploración y Producción, 832 F.3d 92, 107 (2d Cir. N.Y. Aug. 2, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2xcyLXZ).

In that case, the Second Circuit affirmed a district court enforcement decision to confirm an award that had been nullified at the primary jurisdiction in Mexico, on the grounds that the Mexican appellate court had retroactively applied Mexican law and deprived the plaintiff of a remedy, contrary to fundamental U.S. public policy.

The Second Circuit Thai-Lao Lignite panel notes that it held its opinion until a U.S. Supreme Court cert petition in Corporación Mexicana had been decided. The request was denied earlier this year.

But in Thai-Lao Lignite, the U.S appeals court saw no grounds for public policy concerns.  A question as to the defendant’s delay in challenging the award, and its dilatory tactics in discovery matters arising in the U.S. courts, were viewed by as justifiable by the district court; “these factors would not have materially changed the outcome,” the opinion states, considering the district court’s reasons for vacating the award.

The author is an attorney in Nigeria who has just completed her L.L.M. in Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.  She was a CPR Institute 2017 summer intern.

Second Circ. Holds Arbitration Provision in Uber App’s Terms of Service Created Valid Agreement to Arbitrate

By Michael S. Oberman

Oberman
By opinion issued August 17 in Meyer v. Uber Technologies, the Second Circuit reversed a district court denial of a petition to compel arbitration and held that the arbitration provision within Uber’s terms of service as presented in Uber’s app interface resulted in a valid agreement to arbitrate.

Finding that New York and California law was essentially the same on contract formation but applying California law, the Second Circuit stated (at 21) that “we may determine that an agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous and manifestation of assent unambiguous as a matter of law.”

The court found reasonably conspicuous notice on these bases (at 24-26):

Accordingly, when considering the perspective of a reasonable smartphone user, we need not presume that the user has never before encountered an app or entered into a contract using a smartphone. Moreover, a reasonably prudent smartphone user knows that text that is highlighted in blue and underlined is hyperlinked to another webpage where additional information will be found.

Turning to the interface at issue in this case, we conclude that the design of the screen and language used render the notice provided reasonable as a matter of California law. The Payment Screen is uncluttered, with only fields for the user to enter his or her credit card details, buttons to register for a user account or to connect the userʹs pre‐existing PayPal account or Google Wallet to the Uber account, and the warning that ʺBy creating an Uber account, you agree to the TERMS OF SERVICE & PRIVACY POLICY.ʺ The text, including the hyperlinks to the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy, appears directly below the buttons for registration. The entire screen is visible at once, and the user does not need to scroll beyond what is immediately visible to find notice of the Terms of Service. Although the sentence is in a small font, the dark print contrasts with the bright white background, and the hyperlinks are in blue and underlined. This presentation differs sharply from the screen we considered in Nicosia, which contained, among other things, summaries of the userʹs purchase and delivery information, ʺbetween fifteen and twenty‐five links,ʺ ʺtext . . . in at least four font sizes and six colors,ʺ and several buttons and advertisements. Nicosia, 834 F.3d at 236‐37. Furthermore, the notice of the terms and conditions in Nicosia was ʺnot directly adjacentʺ to the button intended to manifest assent to the terms, unlike the text and button at issue here. Id. at 236.

In addition to being spatially coupled with the mechanism for manifesting assent ‐‐ i.e., the register button ‐‐ the notice is temporally coupled… Here, notice of the Terms of Service is provided simultaneously to enrollment, thereby connecting the contractual terms to the services to which they apply. We think that a reasonably prudent smartphone user would understand that the terms were connected to the creation of a user account.

That the Terms of Service were available only by hyperlink does not preclude a determination of reasonable notice…. Moreover, the language ʺ[b]y creating an Uber account, you agreeʺ is a clear prompt directing users to read the Terms and Conditions and signaling that their acceptance of the benefit of registration would be subject to contractual terms. As long as the hyperlinked text was itself reasonably conspicuous ‐‐ and we conclude that it was ‐‐ a reasonably prudent smartphone user would have constructive notice of the terms. While it may be the case that many users will not bother reading the additional terms, that is the choice the user makes; the user is still on inquiry notice.

The Court further held (at 27), expressly reversing the district court, that although the terms were lengthy and must be reached by a hyperlink, the arbitration clause was not unreasonably hidden. “Once a user clicks through to the Terms of Service, the section heading (‘Dispute Resolution’) and the sentence waiving the user’s right to a jury trial on relevant claims are both bolded.”

Finally, the Court found manifestation of assent given the objectively reasonable notice and the user’s election to click on the registration button. “The fact that clicking the register button has two functions—creation of a user account and assent to the Terms of Service—does not render Meyer’s assent ambiguous.” (At 29). The Court added (at 30): “The transactional context of the partiesʹ dealings reinforces our conclusion. Meyer located and downloaded the Uber App, signed up for an account, and entered his credit card information with the intention of entering into a forward‐looking relationship with Uber. The registration process clearly contemplated some sort of continuing relationship between the putative user and Uber, one that would require some terms and conditions, and the Payment Screen provided clear notice that there were terms that governed that relationship.”

In sum, the Court applied traditional contract principles to smartphone technology, and placed heavy emphasis on Uber’s screen design—the clarity of the hyperlink to the Terms of Service and, within the Terms of Service, the bolding of the Dispute Resolution heading. This reasonable disclosure, coupled with the user’s intent to create an account with Uber, proved sufficient for an agreement to arbitrate. In distinguishing the present case from the Court’s own recent opinion in Nicosia, the Court has provided some specific guidance on the graphic features that can separate a binding agreement from an unenforceable agreement in the smartphone era.

Mr. Oberman heads up Kramer Levin’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Practice Group. A fellow of the College of Commercial Arbitration, he serves as an arbitrator and a mediator, in addition to representing parties in ADR proceedings. He can be reached at moberman@kramerlevin.com.