Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Whether Section 1782 Allows Discovery for Use Before International Arbitration Tribunals

By John Pinney & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court today heard almost two hours of argument on whether 28 U.S.C. § 1782 allows parties to seek a federal district court order for discovery of evidence for use before international arbitral tribunals.  

In consolidated cases this morning, the Court not only heard arguments from the parties’ counsel but also conducted a potentially pivotal discussion with an attorney from the U.S. Solicitor General’s office.  The government sided with the petitioners and argued against Section 1782’s application for both private international and investor-state arbitrations.

A key issue that emerged during today’s argument was whether the phrase “foreign or international tribunal” should be the focus or whether the single word “tribunal” alone should form the basis of the court’s consideration of whether Section 1782 allows U.S. federal district courts to provide judicial assistance to international arbitral tribunals. 

The Court itself was hesitant about arbitration matters’ inclusion in the law, which is titled “Assistance to foreign and international tribunals and to litigants before such tribunals.” There are “too many problems extending this,” said Justice Stephen G. Breyer to respondent counsel urging foreign arbitral tribunals’ access to the law, asking whether the decision should simply be, “[G]o to Congress [and] get it worked out.”

Soon after, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that including arbitration tribunals “runs very counter to our intuitions that arbitration which is that it is supposed to be quick. . . . And [Sec.] 1782 is a very liberal grant of discovery.”

The cases were differentiated by the types of arbitration involved.  ZF Automotive US Inc. v. Luxshare Ltd., No. 21-401, is a private arbitration, and AlixPartners LLP v. The Fund for Protection of Investor Rights in Foreign States, No. 21-518, is investor-state arbitration, involving the government of Lithuania.

The Court granted certiorari for the two cases argued today in December, shortly after another case addressing the same issue argued today was dismissed in late September.  That case, Servotronics, Inc. v. Rolls-Royce, PLC, No. 20-794, was voluntarily dismissed on the eve of argument that had been set for Oct. 5, during the first week of the Court’s 2021-2022 term. 

[CPR Speaks blog publisher CPR filed an amicus brief in Servotronics and today’s AlixPartners urging the Court to take the cases because of the significance of their issues to international arbitration, but not in support of either side. These briefs were written principally by co-author John Pinney. For details, see John Pinney, “International Arbitration Is Back at the Supreme Court with Today’s Cert Grant on Two Section 1782 Cases,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 10) (available here).]

The first of the two consolidated cases argued today was ZF Automotive, which arises from a private commercial contract with ZF Automotive’s German parent that requires any disputes to be arbitrated before the German Arbitration Institute.  The ZF Automotive case was brought in Detroit prior to commencement of any private international arbitration in Germany.  The district court allowed the requested discovery.  On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, ZF Automotive, in a most unusual move, petitioned for certiorari before judgment to bypass waiting for the Sixth Circuit to decide its appeal. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on Dec. 10.

The second case, AlixPartners, involves an investor-state arbitration arising from a bilateral investment treaty between Russia and Lithuania.  Interestingly, the AlixPartners case is an appeal from the Second Circuit, which in its decision distinguished NBC (see details below), as well as the Second Circuit’s more recent In re Guo, 965 F.3d 96 (2d Cir. 2000), to allow Section 1782 discovery for investor-state cases.

By accepting both a private international arbitration case (ZF Automotive) and an investor-state arbitration case (AlixPartners), the Supreme Court is poised to decide definitively whether any non-governmentally created tribunal can be a “foreign or international tribunal” within the meaning of Section 1782. That was the key focus in today’s arguments.

The cases have attracted 12 amicus briefs – five in support of the petitioners opposing Section 1782 discovery, four in favor of Section 1782 discovery, and three in support of neither side. 

The most significant amici is the United States, which opposes Section 1782 discovery in both private and investor-state arbitrations, arguing that the term “tribunal” does not include international arbitral tribunals, whether they be created either for private international arbitrations or under bilateral or multi-national investment treaties.  The Solicitor General requested and was granted the right to argue orally for the United States today in support of petitioners.

Today’s Arguments

As noted above, a key issue that emerged early in today’s arguments was whether the Section 1782 phrase “foreign or international tribunal” should be the focus or whether the single word “tribunal” alone should form the basis of the court’s consideration of whether the law allows U.S. federal district courts to provide judicial assistance to international arbitral tribunals.   

The 58-year-old statute states, “The district court of the district in which a person resides or is found may order him to give his testimony or statement or to produce a document or other thing for use in a proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal, including criminal investigations conducted before formal accusation.  . . .”

The petitioners opposing Section 1782 discovery–Roman Martinez, deputy office managing partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Latham & Watkins on behalf of ZF Automotive, and Joseph T. Baio, senior counsel at New York’s Willkie Farr & Gallagher, for AlixPartners–argued that the entire phrase, “foreign or international tribunal,” must be considered, and that the phrase has never been used with respect to an arbitral tribunal.

The respondents, on the other hand, focused on the word “tribunal” and argued that it has frequently been used with respect to arbitral tribunals, both contemporaneously in 1964 when the statute was enacted and in current usage. The respondent attorneys arguing on behalf of, respectively, Luxshare and the Fund for Protection of Investor Rights in Foreign State, were Andrew Rhys Davies, a New York partner at Allen & Overy, and Alexander A. Yanos, a New York and Washington partner in Alston & Bird.

Veteran Assistant Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler’s argument, which split the four party appearances, appeared to be given weight, especially in relation to how allowing discovery under Section 1782 might affect the United States’ relations with foreign governments.  His argument contended that there is no meaningful distinction between private international arbitral tribunals and arbitral tribunals established under investment treaties, mainly because neither are “governmental.” 

If you have a U.S. court engaged in discovery, said Kneedler, “it creates the potential for . . . controversy and . . . for having the United States involved . . . in something that is really none of its business.”

The takeaway from Kneedler’s arguments was that the Court should be cautious in accepting respondents’ arguments because any expansion of the scope of Section 1782’s reach should be addressed by Congress.  Congress “had specifically in mind formality,” he concluded.

Kneedler’s point resonated with both Justices Gorsuch and Breyer in the argument that immediately followed by Andrew Rhys Davies, arguing for Luxshare to allow discovery under Sec. 1782 for the company’s arbitration in Germany.  Davies had a difficult time answering Gorsuch’s repeated inquiries on why a definitive Sec. 1782 extension shouldn’t be left to Congress.  Davies ultimately countered that there was no need because the full statute answers the application question by putting it in the U.S. District Court’s hands.

Breyer shrugged the answer off, and said there may be too many problems extending the statute, referring to timing of the discovery requests in the arbitration proceeding, including before a tribunal is established.

Davies insisted the statute as it currently exists contemplates those decisions by the federal court, but Gorsuch jumped back into the conversation immediately, noting that such moves runs counter what arbitration is supposed to be, characterizing Sec. 1782, as noted, as “a very liberal grant of discovery.”

Source of the Review

The Court’s review on this issue can be attributed to a 3-to 2-circuit split created when the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided Abdul Latif Jameel Transp. Co. v. FedEx Corp., 939 F.3d 710 (6th Cir. 2019) (“FedEx”).  At the time, the only circuit court decisions on the issue had been decided in 1999 by the Second Circuit (National Broadcasting Co. v. Bear Stearns & Co., 165 F.3d 184 (2d Cir. 1999)) and the Fifth Circuit (Republic of Kazakhstan v. Biedermann Int’l., 168 F.3d 880 (5th Cir. 1999)). In both cases, the courts ruled that the phrase “foreign or international tribunal” in Sec. 1782 did not apply with respect to private international arbitral tribunals. 

After the Sixth Circuit decided FedEx, the Fourth Circuit followed the Sixth Circuit in Servotronics Inc. v. Boeing Co., 954 F.3d 209 (4th Cir. 2020), but in a parallel case also brought by Servotronics, the Seventh Circuit instead followed the Second and Fifth Circuits in Servotronics Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, 975 F.3d 689 (7th Cir. 2021), holding that Sec. 1782 did not apply with respect to private international arbitral tribunals.

All of these cases came in the wake of the only U.S. Supreme Court facing Section 1782 head on, Intel Corp. v. Advanced Micro Devices Inc., 542 U.S. 241 (2004). Today’s arguments discussed extending discovery to arbitration tribunals in light of Intel’s inclusion of matters quasi-judicial and administrative bodies.

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For an amicus argument against allowing Sec. 1782 discovery, see analysis by Derek T. Ho & Eliana M. Pfeffer, “Discovery in Aid of Foreign Arbitration Proceedings Unfairly Imposes Tremendous Costs on U.S. Companies,” 40 Alternatives 58 (April 2022) (available at https://bit.ly/3JUXs13).

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Today’s consolidated cases are expected to be decided before the Court’s term ends at the end of June. The transcript and audio of the Sec. 1782 arguments are available on the Supreme Court’s website here. Justice Clarence Thomas has missed this week’s arguments — hospitalized with an infection, according to the Court’s Sunday announcement — but will participate using the briefs and the transcript.

While Court watchers’ eyes this week have been on the confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the continuing business of the nation’s top Court is a two-week deep dive into arbitration. The arbitration focus will resume with arguments on Monday morning with Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon, No. 21-309. That employment case will consider whether workers who load or unload goods from vehicles that travel in interstate commerce, but do not physically transport such goods themselves, are interstate ‘transportation workers’ exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act.

Highlights from Morgan v. Sundance Inc.No. 21-328 — an employment arbitration case that was the first of the March arbitration cases, argued earlier this week — can be found on CPR Speaks here. The four-case run will conclude next Wednesday with Viking River Cruises v. MorianaNo. 20-1573, which focuses on the relationship between the FAA and California’s Private Attorneys General Act. For background on Viking River, see Mark Kantor, “US Supreme Court to Review Whether Private Attorney General Action Can Be Waived by an Arbitration Agreement,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 16) (available here).

And one 2021-2022 term arbitration case, Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143, awaits decision. Details on the case from the Nov. 2 arguments is available on CPR Speaks here.

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Pinney is counsel to Graydon Head & Ritchey in Cincinnati. On CPR’s behalf, he acted as counsel of record in an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the Servotronics and AlixPartners cases, as detailed above. Details on the brief can be found on CPR Speaks here. His AlixPartners brief on CPR’s behalf can be found on the Supreme Court docket page linked at the top or directly at https://bit.ly/3pzZpHj. Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR at altnewsletter.com.  Tamia Sutherland, a second-year law student at the Howard University School of Law, in Washington, D.C., assisted with the preparation of this post.

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Case Dismissed: Supreme Court Lightens Its Arbitration Load as Servotronics Is Removed from 2021-22 Docket

By Bryanna Rainwater

The U.S. Supreme Court has dismissed the first arbitration case it had accepted for this fall’s term.

Servotronics Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, et al., Docket No. 20-794, has been officially removed from the Supreme Court’s docket as of today, with the Oct. 5 opening week oral argument wiped off the schedule.  You can see the Court’s order in the docket here.

Petitioner Servotronics’ counsel, issued a Sept. 8 letter to the Court stating it would file a formal dismissal request “within the next few days” per Rule 46 of the Rules of the Court.

The dismissal follows the completion of arbitration in London this summer. The U.S. Solicitor General’s office had requested and been granted permission to participate in the oral arguments.

The issue that was awaiting the Supreme Court was whether the discretion granted to district courts in 28 U.S.C. §1782(a) to render assistance in gathering evidence for use in “a foreign or international tribunal” encompasses private commercial arbitral tribunals, as the Fourth and Sixth U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal have held, or excludes such tribunals without expressing an exclusionary intent, as the Second, Fifth, and, in the case below, the Seventh Circuit, have held.  See Servotronics Inc. v. Rolls Royce PLC, No. 19-1847 (7th Cir. Sept. 22, 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/3dpNyF4).   

Since the Court has declined to hear this case, the future of international private commercial arbitration discovery is still unclear, with pending cases in federal circuit courts.

For more background on the Servotronics history, please see CPR’s coverage:

  1. Cai Phillips-Jones, “United States Submits Amicus Brief in Servotronics International Arbitration Supreme Court Case,” CPR Speaks (July 8) (available here).
  2. Amy Foust, “The Next Arbitration Matter: Supreme Court Agrees to Decide Extent of Foreign Tribunal Evidence Powers,” (March 22) (available here).
  3. “YouTube Analysis: What Happens Next with the 3/22 Servotronics Cert Grant on Foreign Arbitration Evidence,” CPR Speaks (March 22) (available here).
  4. “CPR Files Amicus Brief Asking U.S. Supreme Court to Tackle Foreign Discovery for Arbitration,” CPR Speaks (Jan. 6) (available here).
  5. 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 at https://bit.ly/38PDOSk).
  6. John B. Pinney, “Update: The Section 1782 Conflict Intensifies as the International Arbitration Issue Goes to the Supreme Court,” 38 Alternatives 125 (September 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/3tbgFCX).

The Court recently scheduled its second–and suddenly, sole–arbitration matter for the new term.  Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143, will discuss “[w]hether federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to confirm or vacate an arbitration award under Sections 9 and 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act when the only basis for jurisdiction is that the underlying dispute involved a federal question.”  It will be argued on Nov. 2.

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The author, a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School, is a 2021 CPR Fall Intern.

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