May 02, 2014

A Word (and a Case) on US Enforcement of Foreign Award-Confirmation Judgments

Dear foreign readers, do not try the US enforcement strategy that I am about to describe. This is only a lesson on the vagaries of subject matter jurisdiction in the courts of the United States. But in a month bereft of blockbuster decisions on US arbitration law something obscure yet fundamental provides a nice change of pace.

You, the estimable advocate, having won a handsome LCIA award for your Mauritius client against an Emirati company and its Pakistani shareholder, apply for recognition of the award in the Commercial Court in London and, perhaps at some considerable expense, secure a judgment there. But there are assets in the US or so you think, and a deficiency of same in the UK, and so you arrange for US counsel to seek enforcement of the judgment, not the award, in the US District Court in New York. (Your writer, who did not get this engagement, would have spared the client some agony).

The US has no statute of its own (i.e. at the federal level) on the enforcement of foreign money judgments, and so there is no “federal question” entrée to a federal court, via the judgment rather than the award, unless your Mauritian client’s award/judgment is on a US statutory claim.  We Americans do have a Uniform Law on the recognition and enforcement of foreign money judgments, but the Uniform Law is adopted by the individual States including New York. So this case belongs in the State court not the federal unless there is diversity of citizenship. Diversity exists, and opens the federal courthouse doors, when New Yorkers face off with Californians or Mauritians or Pakistanis, but not when Mauritians and Pakistanis have at it in New York (or elsewhere in our nation). This is byzantine, but we live with it.

And the consequence in the case to which I refer was that the action to enforce the UK judgment was dismissed for lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction. (Mont Blanc Trading Ltd. v. Khan, 2014 WL 1116733 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2014)).

As it happens, the state and federal trial courts in New York share a subway stop and several street vendors, and the Commercial Division of New York Supreme Court is navigable for foreign users, with a little extra patience. But there is a tendency in that Court for one-size-fits-all civil procedure (Procrustean, to some), and as a court of general jurisdiction there is no special division for international cases (save that one particular judge of the Commercial Division was recently designated to hear all cases involving international arbitration). So there is a disinclination among US arbitration practitioners to use the state court where the objective is to advance rather than obstruct the arbitration process or its outcomes.

One does wonder why the award/judgment creditor in this Mont Blanc Trading case was disinclined to seek recognition of the award under the New York Convention. Perhaps counsel (not identified in the decision) misapplied the US law concept that an award once confirmed is merged into the judgment and ceases to have independent existence.  That rule is mainly applied in reference to interest, such that the rate specified in the award ceases to apply and the federal statutory judgment rate applies once the award has been confirmed. That merger rule does not apply to extinguish a foreign award because it has been recognized by a foreign judgment. The New York Convention, in the US as elsewhere, permits an award winner to seek recognition in any one of, or in several, the Convention’s Contracting States.

All is not lost for the Mauritians. The case was dismissed with leave to replead. They may replead under the Convention and FAA Chapter Two at 40 Foley Square (the old but splendidly refurbished Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse). Or they may head across the street, with a stop at the bagel stand, to 60 Centre Street, the New York Supreme Court, where an action to enforce the foreign money judgment under Article 53 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (our enactment of the Uniform Law) will be received. We can only wish the Mauritians safe passage, once they make a proper jurisdictional choice.

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