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.