Archive for May, 2017

What We Learn from the Suez/Vivendi v. Argentina Non-Annulment (1) — Arbitrator Disclosure

Monday, May 8th, 2017

Engaging in imitation as a sincere form of flattery I begin this post with a warning: very short post, as your author on May 8 is already a week overdue to you, and is threatened with duties not consistent with his devotion to you for the next two weeks.

So, let us consider, quickly and with more than the usual disarray and risk of error from which these posts chronically suffer, what we take away from an ICSID Annulment Committee’s decision dated May 5, 2017 in the Vivendi and Suez v. Argentina case (Suez & Vivendi Universal v. Argentine Republic, ICSID Case No. ARB/03/19, Decision on Annulment, May 5, 2017), in regard to the issue of the Arbitral Tribunal’s refusal to accept a challenge to the service of one of its members – a decision held by the Annulment Committee to have been not manifestly unreasonable. (Faint praise can be a blessing!)

Buffs who follow investment arbitration intensely will recall that a famous Swiss arbitrator famously joined the Board of Directors of a famous if not infamous Swiss bank in 2006, gave the Bank a list of her pending arbitrations, and in effect delegated to the Bank the task of ascertaining if any of her case commitments could result in her being perceived to lack independence of judgment as a Bank fiduciary. She determined not to investigate, on her own, the extent of the Bank’s proprietary or client-based investments in the companies appearing before her in this and another related investment arbitration against Argentina, and elected not to disclose, in either case, the fact of her election to the Bank’s board.

From the Annulment Committee’s holding and its remarks, we may discern that the following key elements of analysis by the Tribunal were at least not manifestly unreasonable: that the Bank’s holdings in the Claimant companies (proprietary and for clients in their accounts, combined), while making it a large if not the largest shareholder of each company with something north of two percent, constituted a very small fraction of the Bank’s investments even though the dollar amount of such investments, more than $2 billion, would appear substantial. Equally, while the stakes in the arbitration were in the hundreds of millions of dollars, in relation to the size and turnover of the Claimant companies the amounts in dispute were not particularly material, certainly not of “bet the company” proportions. Also, the arbitrator determined in 2009, at which point the Tribunal had unanimously upheld its jurisdiction but had not issued an award on liability or quantum, to give up her Board seat at the Bank.

Having promised brevity, I leave you with these questions: Should full time arbitrators, especially those who are regularly called upon to decide high-stakes cases involving large multinationals and States, confine their fiduciary service to predictably conflict-free institutions, mainly in the non-profit sector? Should an arbitrator’s duty to investigate potential conflicts of interest ever be delegable, at least not without disclosure to the parties of the determination to delegate? In the interest of making awards as invulnerable as possible, and of reducing the costs and uncertainties involved in post-Award challenges – whether in Annulment Committees or in ordinary courts – should prominent arbitrators involved with high-stakes disputes and high-profile entities more often err on the side of disclosure even where a strong case can be made under IBA Guidelines and other relevant conflicts guidance that disclosure is not required?

In Praise of Small Edits in the ICC Rules!

Monday, May 8th, 2017

This month Arbitration Commentaries applauds the ICC for a small but valuable edit made in Article 6(3) as part of the ICC Rules revisions that became effective March 1, 2017. This edit, as explained below, is likely to fix a recent small dent in the armor of compétence-compétence in the US courts.

In a recent case in a US District Court, the Court held that a challenge by the prospective Claimant to the validity of the arbitration agreement, raised in opposition to a motion to compel arbitration made by Respondent in Claimant’s plenary action, was to be decided by the Court not an arbitrator because Article 6(3) in the 2012 version of the Rules did not, as the Court construed it, delegate to the arbitrator arbitrability objections raised in Court by the putative arbitration Claimant in opposition to the putative Respondent’s motion to compel arbitration. (Eisen v Venulum, Ltd., 2017 WL 1126137 (WDNY Mar. 27, 2017, appeal filed, 2d Cir., April 25, 2017).

In the 2012 version of the Rules, presumably still extant when this case was briefed and argued, Article 6(3) provided in relevant part: “If any party against which a claim has been made does not submit an answer, or raises one or more pleas concerning the existence, validity or scope of the agreement to arbitrate … any question of jurisdiction… shall be decided directly by the arbitral tribunal….” One can appreciate why the ICC edited the Rule. Some judge might otherwise read it — in the English version of the Rules — to assign arbitrability issues to the Tribunal only when raised by a “party against which a claim has been made.” This was the interpretation of Article 6(3) advanced by defendant (putative arbitration Respondent) in its motion to compel arbitration in the Eisen case. The District Judge embraced it, and held that the issue of unconscionability of the arbitration clause, clearly a “validity” issue, was for the US District Court because the parties had not clearly and unmistakably delegated it to the arbitrators.

Evidently neither party informed the Court that the ICC had fixed the syntax problem effective March 1, 2017. Article 6(3) as amended reads: “If any party against which a claim has been made does not submit an answer, or if any party raises one or more pleas concerning the existence, validity or scope of the arbitration agreement….” (emphasis supplied). Syntax problem solved. The intent of the Rule is not changed, presumably. Presumably it was always intended that under Article 6(3)  a jurisdiction issue raised by “any party” and not only a party “against which a claim has been made” would be resolved by arbitration. But the language difficulty was only acute in the pre-arbitral setting of a litigation in which the party asserting the claim denies that she is bound to arbitrate the claim. In the courthouse, she is not a party against whom a claim is made but rather is the Plaintiff. And that was the dispositive consideration for the US District Court in Eisen.

Defendant/Respondent counsel in Eisen evidently did not inform the Court of the March 1, 2017 amendment, and evidently also did not call the Court’s attention to Article 6(1) (unchanged from 2012 to 2017 version): “Where the parties have agreed to submit to arbitration under the Rules, they shall be deemed to have submitted ipso facto to the Rules in effect on the date of commencement of the arbitration, unless they have agreed to submit to the Rules in effect on the date of their arbitration agreement.” The parties in Eisen did not specify the 2012 Rules, so they are signed up for the 2017 version.

Somebody should tell the Judge! It’s not too late to correct the ruling. But at the moment the case seems destined for the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and presumably for a reversal by a Summary Order that finds the case to be squarely within existing Second Circuit precedent (Shaw Group and Linhas cases) that an agreement to arbitrate under ICC Rules delegates arbitrability issues to the Tribunal.

All of this makes a difference, of course, because the Court proceeded to find that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable — itself a close question in the context of the underlying dispute which concerns a securities scam based on fine wine investments, and, of particular note, an agreement between Toronto scammers and their Buffalo NY victim to arbitrate in the British Virgin Islands under BVI law. But chances are this analysis will fall by the wayside save as the Arbitral Tribunal that will hear the case might find it persuasive.