Personal jurisdiction analysis is often the enemy of 1L’s tackling that doozy of a CivPro exam. Outside of  that 10-page fact pattern requiring consideration of Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, SA v. Hall, International Shoe Co. v. Washington, and World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodsonthis is normally a seamless endeavor for commercial litigators. But what happens when plaintiff’s counsel lacks sufficient information to adequately establish personal jurisdiction in opposition to a CPLR § 3211 (a) (8) motion?

The obvious answer is that the defendant’s motion will be granted. But that is not the only answer. In some cases, the court will deny the motion and grant the plaintiff jurisdictional discovery. In considering the New York County Commercial Division’s (Scarpulla, J.) grant of a CPLR § 3211 (a) (8) motion, the Appellate Division, First Department in Universal Inv. Advisory SA v. Bakrie Telecom PTE, Ltd., offered insight into when this relief is appropriate.

The relevant defendants were an Indonesian telecommunications company (“BTEL”), its parent company (“B & B”), and certain of its directors and commissioners (“Individual Defendants”). Under an indenture, a subsidiary of BTEL (the “Issuer”) issued on BTEL’s behalf $380 million of guaranteed senior notes (“Notes”) that were offered in international financial markets. BTEL then received the $380 million in proceeds from the offering through an intercompany loan from the Issuer, and issued an unconditional guarantee of the Issuer’s payment obligations under the Notes. Plaintiffs, holders of 25% of the Notes, commenced the underlying suit after BTEL defaulted in making the interest payments required under the indenture, which contained a New York forum selection clause. Of particular importance, neither the Individual Defendants nor B & B were signatories to the Indenture (“Non-Signatories”).

The Commercial Division held that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over the Non-Signatories for two reasons: 1) because as non-signatories to the indenture, they could not be bound by the forum selection clause; and 2) the plaintiffs failed to satisfy the “closely related theory,” (see Tate & Lyle Ingredients Ams., Inc. v. Whitefox Tech. USA, Inc.) under which a signatory to a contract may invoke a forum selection clause against a non-signatory if the non-signatory is so closely related to the signatory that enforcement of the forum selection clause against the non-signatory is foreseeable.

In addressing the closely related theory, the First Department explained further that a finding of personal jurisdiction based on a forum selection clause may be appropriate where the non-signatory has an ownership or controlling interest in the signatory, or where the signatory and non-signatory were jointly involved in the decision-making process. In ruling that the dismissal motion should have been denied without prejudice as to the Non-Signatories and that parties should have been permitted to conduct jurisdictional discovery, the First Department held that the plaintiffs demonstrated that facts may exist, which would satisfy the closely related theory. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the Non-Signatories – the Individual Defendants through their senior management positions, power and decision-making authority, and B & B as BTEL’s parent company and principal shareholder – authorized, participated in, and promoted the offering and caused the offering memoranda to be distributed in the marketplace.

The key guidance from the First Department is that jurisdictional discovery is appropriate when information may exist to support a finding of jurisdiction, and where that information cannot without discovery be known by the plaintiff. Not surprisingly, this tracks nearly identically CPLR § 3211 (d), entitled “Facts unavailable to opposing party.” As the First Department explained, the plaintiff’s allegations in Universal Advisory SA warranted jurisdictional discovery regarding the Non-Signatories actual knowledge and role and responsibilities in the offering, because that information “may result in a determination that the nonsignatories are indeed ‘closely related’ to the signing parties, [and] is a fact that cannot be presently known to plaintiff, but rather is within the exclusive control of defendants.”

As we have come to expect, the Commercial Division Advisory Council periodically makes recommendations to amend and/or supplement the Rules of the Commercial Division, many of which are eventually adopted following a solicitation process for public comment by the Office of Court Administration.

In 2015, as a host of new Commercial Division rules and amendments were being rolled out, the NYSBA Commercial and Federal Litigation Section sponsored several panels throughout the metro-area to discuss the impact of the new rules on the various county bar associations.  At the time, Commercial Division practitioners and judges alike were still figuring out how and under what circumstances the new rules – concerning, among other things, interrogatory limitations, categorical privilege logs, nonparty electronic discovery, and expert disclosure – would be applied in their cases.  It’s been a couple years, so let’s take a look at some recent decisions to see how some of these rules are being applied.

Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich, whose thoughtful decisions are no strangers to this blog, has at least twice this year addressed Commercial Division Rule 11-c concerning nonparty electronic discovery.  Under Rule 11-c and the corresponding guidelines found in Appendix A to the Rules of the Commercial Division, “[t]he requesting party shall defray the nonparty’s reasonable production expenses” – including, for example, “fees charged by outside counsel and e-discovery consultants” and “costs incurred in connection with the identification, preservation, collection, processing, hosting, use of advanced analytical software applications and other technologies, review for relevance and privilege, preparation of a privilege log . . . , and production.”

Recently, in Gottwald v Sebert, Justice Kornreich addressed Rule 11-c in the context of a motion to compel production of documents by a nonparty public-relations firm hired by pop star, “Kesha” Sebert, in connection with her allegations of sexual assault, battery, and harassment against her former manager and producer, “Dr. Luke” Gottwald.  Justice Kornreich granted Dr. Luke’s motion, assessing any burden on the PR firm as “minimal,” given that “hit count caps can be used to keep costs reasonable”; that hit counts for the limited time period in which the firm was involved “should be minimal or nonexistent”; and that Dr. Luke “must reimburse [the firm] for the reasonable costs of . . . review[ing] documents for responsiveness to the subpoena, and log[ging] those that are purportedly privileged.”

Earlier this year, in Bank of NY v WMC Mtge., LLC, Justice Kornreich addressed Rule 11-c in the context of motions to quash nonparty subpoenas in a RMBS put-back case.  In denying the motions, Justice Kornreich similarly assessed the burden on the nonparties as “relatively minimal,” given that the defendant serving the subpoenas “will have to defray the [nonparties’] reasonable document collection, review, and production costs, including certain legal fees.”

Justice Kornreich also addressed Rule 11-b (b) concerning the “categorical” versus “document-by-document” approach to logging of privileged materials in Bank of N.Y. Mellon.  Under Rule 11-b (b) (1), specifically, the Commercial Division had expressed a “preference . . . for the parties to use categorical designations, where appropriate, to reduce the time and costs associated with preparing privilege logs.”  Referencing the parties’ prior meet-and-confer on the subject, Justice Kornreich ruled that “a categorical privilege log, in the first instance, will be employed for the sake of cost efficiency,” and that once the defendant serving the subpoenas “is made aware of the hit count totals associated with the [nonparties’] privilege designations,” it may then “elect . . . to pursue such purportedly privileged documents in light of the legal fees necessary to do so.”

Be sure to check back in a few weeks when we take a look at a couple more recent decisions applying some of these newer Commercial Division rules.  In the meantime, Commercial Division practitioners, particularly those on the receiving end of a nonparty subpoena seeking ESI, should be mindful that the rules defraying the costs of e-discovery appear to have minimized the effect of the commonly-asserted “unduly burdensome” objection.

Can a claim for equitable or common-law indemnification co-exist with a claim for express or contractual indemnification?

In Live Invest, Inc. v. Morgan Justice Emerson says “no”, when the claim seeks to recover for the defendant’s wrongdoing (e.g., breach of contract) as opposed to simply trying to hold a defendant liable based on vicarious liability.

In Live Invest, the court was faced with a motion to dismiss  a third-party action brought by Jericho Capital Corp. (“Jericho”) against Gamma Enterprises, LLC (“Gamma”).  The main action alleged claims seeking to pierce the corporate veil against an individual and several entities, including Jericho.  On motions to dismiss the main action, the court dismissed all but Jericho, see Order, and Order 2, Live Invest v. Morgan (Jan. 13, 2017).   Jericho then pursued the third-party action against Gamma, asserting three causes of action, all premised on variations of indemnification.   The first claim, for express or contractual, based liability on a clause in the Purchase Agreement between Jericho and Gamma, stating that Gamma, “agrees to indemnity and hold harmless [Jericho]. . . from. . . any and all manner of loss, suits, claims,or causes of action. . . arising out of. . . Delta.”  The latter two claims were based on equitable and common-law indemnification.

Noting that equitable or common-law indemnification generally applies when one is held responsible by operation of law due to the relationship of the parties, such as vicarious liability, the dismissed the two equitable claims since the contract itself is claimed to have been breached.  Therefore, the court reasoned, the claim is properly premised for the breach, not by reason of the relationship of the parties.

Interestingly, as to the express or contractual indemnification claim, Gamma raised the threshold issues of whether that claim was “premature” and if the claim for indemnification was incompatible with plaintiff’s veil-piercing claim, see Gamma’s Memorandum of Law.  The Court rejected both arguments.  Finding first that although public policy will render unenforceable contracts that purport to indemnify one for conduct that involves an “intent to harm”, the court here found that nothing precludes indemnification for damages flowing from a mere “volitional act” where no finding of intent to harm has been made.  As to the incompatibility argument, Justice Emerson found that the indemnification and veil-piercing actions could co-exist.  The court reasoned that a claim based on an alter-ego theory is a “procedural device”, not a substantive remedy.  It “merely furnishes a means for a complainant to reach a second corporation or individual”.

 

If you live in the Western Hemisphere, then you already know that New York courts may exercise personal jurisdiction over a nondomiciliary who transacts business in New York if the plaintiff’s claim arises from the transaction of such business. But what does it mean to transact business in New York? Much ink has been spilled on this very question, and there is not room enough here to even begin to cover its scope. However, a recent decision by Justice Elizabeth Hazlitt Emerson (Supreme Court, Commercial Division – Suffolk County) sheds some light.

In Katherine Sales & Sourcing, Inc. v Fiorella, plaintiff Katherine Sales & Sourcing, Inc. (“Katherine”), a New York corporation, sued defendant Robert Fiorella (“Fiorella”) in New York Supreme Court, Suffolk County. Katherine’s complaint alleged that Fiorella had submitted $220,000 in fraudulently inflated invoices to a company co-owned by Katherine in connection with an oral consulting agreement.

Fiorella, a California resident, moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Fiorella argued that he did not enter the State of New York to negotiate his oral consulting agreement, to complete its performance, or for any reason other than to visit his family in Buffalo for Christmas in 2014. The only contact Fiorella had with anyone in New York consisted of telephone calls and emails that he had received and responded to.

Fiorella’s motion to dismiss was granted. Per the court (citing Biz2Credit, Inc., v Kular), jurisdiction is conferred where a defendant projects himself into New York to perform services and purposefully avails himself of the privileges and benefits of performing such services in the State.   In making this determination, the court in Kular noted that common factors to be considered include: 

(1) whether the defendant has an ongoing contractual relationship with a New York corporation;

(2) whether the defendant negotiated or executed a contract in New York and whether the defendant visited New York after executing the contract with the parties;

(3) whether there is a choice-of-law clause in any such contract; and

(4) whether the contract requires franchisees to send notices and payments into the forum state or subjects them to supervision by the corporation in the forum state.

While Justice Emerson did not reference these factors, much less individually address each of them, her opinion appeared to rely on the second factor—namely, that Fiorella had never entered New York nor performed any part of the agreement by means of purposeful contacts with New York. Other cases cited by the court, including Wego Chemical & Mineral Corp v. Magnablend Inc., support the supreme importance of this second factor: “Courts seem generally loath to uphold jurisdiction under the `transaction in New York’ prong of CPLR 302 if the contract at issue was negotiated solely by mail, telephone, and fax without any New York presence by the defendant.”

But didn’t Fiorella’s phone calls and emails with individuals in New York count as such a “New York presence”? Under different circumstances, they might have. For example, the New York Court of Appeals has held that telephonic participation in a New York auction is sufficient to confer jurisdiction. But Fiorella was not actively transacting business during his calls. To the court, it made all the difference that Fiorella had not initiated the telephone calls and emails with individuals in New York. Moreover, these communications were deemed “incidental” to work that Fiorella was performing outside of New York.

The takeaway from this latest decision appears to be that merely answering calls from area codes “212,” “516,” and “631” does not subject oneself to jurisdiction in New York. Something more is required from the communication—the recipient of such a call must “actively project[] himself into New York to conduct business transactions”—in order to confer jurisdiction.

CPLR 3211(a)(1) allows a defendant to seek dismissal of a complaint when the defense is “founded upon documentary evidence.” “Documentary evidence”, however, is not defined by the CPLR – leaving many practitioners in the dark as to what qualifies as a sufficient “document” under this paragraph.  Indeed, in a recent blog, we highlighted a case involving whether a termination letter sent by the lawyer was sufficient.

By its plain meaning, “documentary evidence” seems to suggest that any type of evidence that has been reduced to writing could qualify. In reality, however, “documentary evidence” only encompasses certain types of documents, making CPLR 3211(a)(1) a narrow, and sometimes risky, ground upon which to seek dismissal.

That begs the question – what qualifies as documentary evidence under CPLR 3211(a)(1)? New York courts have held that judicial records and documents such as notes, mortgages, and deeds rise to the level of “documentary.” But what about contracts? In Hoeg Corp. v Peebles Corp., the Second Department recently affirmed that contracts can indeed attain the rank of “documentary evidence” under certain circumstances.

In Hoeg, plaintiff and defendant entered into a joint venture and memorialized the terms of their relationship in a written retainer agreement. Specifically, the retainer agreement provided, among other things, that plaintiff would act as a consultant in order to facilitate defendant’s acquisition and development of real property in New York City. The retainer agreement also set forth varying commission structures for work performed by plaintiff in facilitating the defendant’s acquisition of such properties. Notwithstanding the written retainer agreement, plaintiff alleged that it had entered into a prior oral agreement with defendant whereby the parties agreed that plaintiff would retain 25% of the equity in the joint venture.

The plaintiff ultimately commenced an action against the defendant for breach of the oral agreement, alleging that the defendant had failed to honor the terms of the oral agreement after the defendant had sold development rights to a parcel of property in a multimillion dollar deal. The Kings County Supreme Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, but the Second Department reversed, finding that the written retainer agreement qualified as documentary evidence under CPLR 3211(a)(1).

In reaching its conclusion, the Court examined the parties’ written retainer agreement and found that the agreement was “comprehensive in its scope and coverage” that constituted a complete written instrument. Accordingly, the Court held that the parol evidence rule bars any evidence concerning the alleged prior oral agreement. For this reason, the Court ruled that the parties’ contract “conclusively disposed of the plaintiff’s claim alleging breach of the purported oral joint venture agreement.”

This does not necessarily mean that every contract will qualify as documentary evidence under CPLR 3211(a)(1). A document will be considered “documentary evidence” within the meaning of CPLR 3211(a)(1) if it “utterly refutes the plaintiff’s allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law” (see, e.g., Eisner v Cusumano Corp.) .  In addition, the documentary evidence must be “unambiguous, authentic, and essentially undeniable” (id.).  

The careful practitioner should be aware of the limited utility of CPLR 3211(a)(1) and be armed with the right evidence before relying solely on the “documentary evidence” ground. Otherwise, it might be wise for a practitioner to invoke CPLR 3211(a)(7) as a ground for dismissal as well.

 

Statutorily imposed deadlines are not optional for commercial litigants; this much should be obvious. Notwithstanding, and despite numerous technological calendaring options available to commercial litigators, deadlines are blown in the Commercial Division, including the mother of all deadlines: the defendant’s time to answer or otherwise move against a complaint (see CPLR 3012). As should also be obvious, the defaulting defendant’s request for a “Get out of Jail Free Card” – a motion to extend the time to appear or plead (see CPLR § 3012 [d]) – will not be taken lightly.

A recent ruling provides such a reminder.  In State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Austin Diagnostic Med., P.C., the Appellate Division, Second Department recently considered the Queen’s County Commercial Division’s (Dufficy, J.) denial of such a motion. State Farm commenced the action seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not obligated to pay certain no-fault insurance benefits to the defendant. The defendant blew its deadline and, three and a half months late, filed its answer. State Farm rejected the answer and the defendant moved to extend its time to answer, “or in the alternative, to compel the plaintiff to accept” it.

In affirming the Commercial Division’s denial of the motion, the Appellate Division offered a clear reminder of the defaulting defendant’s bright-line burden: in addition to providing a reasonable excuse for its delay, it must demonstrate that it has a potentially meritorious defense. The Appellate Division held that the documents offered in support of a potentially meritorious defense – the untimely answer, which was verified by the defendant’s attorney, and an affirmation of the defendant’s attorney – were insufficient because the attorney lacked personal knowledge of the facts.

The take-away here is fundamental, but critical: do what you must to avoid a default and, if you do miss your deadline, be sure your motion for an extension establishes a reasonable excuse for the delay and a potentially meritorious defense, both of which are attested to by someone having personal knowledge of those facts.

Visitors to this blog may recall our recent posts (here and here) concerning the individual practice rules of Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Bransten and Queens County Commercial Division Justices Gray and Livote.  “Check the rules!”, was the cautionary theme of those posts.

But just how much of a stickler for compliance can one expect a judge to be with respect to the part’s individual rules?  And is there any precedent for enforcement – perhaps even some case law that can be cited by a party affected by a non-compliance?

More and more, counsel are being reminded of the importance of following the rules in the Commercial Division.  In at least two decisions this year, Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich gave such reminders to the bar when she admonished the parties for violating her part rules in the context of summary judgment motions.

With respect to motion papers filed in her court, particularly motions for summary judgment, Justice Kornreich’s “Practices in Part 54” clearly require, among other things, that:

·       “all e-filed documents must be OCR Text Searchable PDFs”;

·       all memoranda of law must include “cover pages, tables of contents, and tables of authorities, all three of which are mandatory”;

·       “the parties shall . . . prepare and file one joint Rule 19-a statement of material facts at least three weeks before the summary judgment motion is filed” and that “[i]f the parties cannot agree on a joint statement, no Rule 19-a statement of facts may be filed”; and that

·       “[i]f summary judgment briefs cite to deposition testimony, a complete copy of that deposition transcript must be filed.”

Simple enough, right?  Maybe not.

In Lau v Lazar, which involved cross-motions for summary judgment concerning the ownership and operation of an outpatient surgical center, Justice Kornreich reprimanded the parties for “substantially delay[ing] the court in resolving the instant motions” due to their filing of lengthy briefs that “lack[ed] tables of contents and authorities, that [we]re not text-searchable, and that contain[ed] almost no case law in violation of this part’s rules.”  Justice Kornreich also scolded the parties for “submit[ting] fact statements without citations to the record, forcing the court to piece together the factual background from the parties’ exhibits, which . . . did not include complete deposition transcripts.”

In Arizona Premium Fin. Co., Inc. v American Tr. Ins. Co., which involved cross-motions for summary judgment concerning the return of unearned insurance premiums, Justice Kornreich threw out altogether the defendant’s “proposed statement of material facts, which was submitted in violation of this part’s rules,” because the parties otherwise “were unable to agree on a joint statement of undisputed facts.”

You are remembered for the rules you break“, remarked Gen. Douglas MacArthur.  In the Commercial Division, however, you don’t want to be remembered as the one who broke the rules.  Justice Kornreich’s recent Lau and Arizona Premium decisions serve as another, best-practices reminder for the Commercial Division practitioner to first “check the rules”, then follow them!

 

 

 

 

 

In an action brought against a title company for losses in connection with a property sale, Justice Elizabeth H. Emerson, in JBGR LLC v. Chicago Title Ins. Co., denied the title insurer’s motion to amend its answer to add defenses, but also denied plaintiffs’ motion for a protective order concerning a withheld memorandum prepared by plaintiffs’ “expediter”.

This is the latest suit involving a 286-acre parcel of property for the development of homes surrounding a golf course on Long Island.  In an earlier suit, the court awarded $2.97 million in damages against the plaintiffs in the current action based upon a promissory note default.  In turn, plaintiffs sued Chicago Title, title insurer of the sale.  In short, plaintiffs allege they were unaware of a 1997 declaration that restricted development to 140 homes, of which the title insurer failed to advise.  Plaintiffs intended to build another 55 homes on the property, but couldn’t.

After years of discovery and motion practice, the case was certified trial ready, and note of issue filed in December 2016.  Post note of issue motions were then filed.  Defendant filed a motion to amend its answer to withdraw certain defenses, modify others and add six more.  Plaintiffs cross-moved for a protective order, seeking to prevent disclosure of a memorandum produced to defendant, based upon attorney client privilege and work product doctrines.

As to the proposed amendments, the court concluded that the delay, coupled with prejudice, warranted denial.  In considering the prejudice, the court applied the same elements used in the laches context, and noted that once certified as “trial ready”, the court’s discretion “should be discrete, circumspect, prudent, and cautious”.  In this case, the court focused particularly on how long defendant was aware of the facts, which had been since June 2015.

An even more significant ruling, however, was the denial of the motion for a protective order.  The memorandum in question was a memo generated by Joseph Dempsey, an attorney, summarizing a meeting held in 2010, at which the municipal applications for the development were discussed.  Defendant obtained the document through a third-party subpoena served upon one of the participants to the meeting, Victor Prusinowski.  Mr. Prusinowski described in his deposition that he was an expediter or “land-use consultant”.  The court held that the memo was not protected from disclosure on three grounds.  First, Prusinowski’s advice, as a non-lawyer service provider, while “important” to the legal advice given to the clients, was not “given to facilitate such legal advice”, and therefore the agency principle did not apply here and his presence waived any privilege.  Second, even if it were privileged, the court concluded that there was a waiver, since “plaintiffs’ took no concrete steps to obtain a ruling” or seek a claw-back for nearly two years.   Finally, the court concluded that the memo prepared by Dempsey was not considered “work product”, since he wasn’t acting as counsel when prepared.  The memo did not contain “language uniquely reflecting a lawyer’s learning an [sic] professional skills, including legal research, analysis, conclusions, legal theory or strategy”.

And all this means what?  As to amendments, consider amending or seeking leave soon after the new facts arise.  Although there may be strategy in waiting to amend, the courts will focus on how long you knew, and whether you had a reasonable excuse for the delay.  As to privilege, when working with non-lawyer service providers, courts will carefully scrutinize their retention, scope of services and their “necessity” for the rendering or facilitation of legal advice.  Consider whether counsel — and not the client — should retain the provider, and whether a Kovel agreement is needed.

 

 

 

If you have ever looked at a contract’s New York choice-of-law provision or a status conference stipulation and thought to yourself, “Who wrote this darned thing?” then now is your chance to weigh in. The Commercial Division Advisory Council has recommended two new forms—a model choice-of-law provision and a model status conference stipulation and order form—and the Office of Court Administration is soliciting public comments. Comments should be emailed to rulecomments@nycourts.gov by August 25, 2017.

Standard New York Choice-of-Law Provision

The proposed sample choice-of-law provision, which would be appended to the Rules of the Commercial Division, is as follows:

THIS AGREEMENT AND ITS ENFORCEMENT, AND ANY CONTROVERSY ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO THE MAKING OR PERFORMANCE OF THIS AGREEMENT, SHALL BE GOVERNED BY AND CONSTRUED IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE LAW OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, WITHOUT REGARD TO NEW YORK’S PRINCIPLES OF CONFLICTS OF LAW.

The gentle reader must forgive the ALL-CAPS format of the original proposed text (presumably this provision was intended to be read loudly in a New York accent). This proposed uniform provision is intended to (1) assist drafters who wish to choose New York law to govern disputes; (2) reduce litigation over choice-of-law issues; and (3) showcase New York’s “predictable and sensible commercial law” and thereby increase commercial litigation in New York courts. Whether increased commercial litigation in New York’s courts is a desirable goal may be open to debate, but few would object that litigation over sloppily-drafted choice-of-law provisions should be eradicated to the extent possible.

Model Status Conference Stipulation and Order

The Advisory Council has also recommended the adoption of a revised model status conference stipulation and order for use in the Commercial Division. This revised form, which can be viewed here, was designed to incorporate changes in Commercial Division rules and practice since the form was last revised in October 2015. The proposed form has a new section on expert discovery, contains reminders on the finality of discovery deadlines and the availability of alternative dispute resolution, and allows for greater specificity regarding discovery topics. As a model form it is not mandatory, but insofar as it is used as a guide by judges it provides a comprehensive overview of the discovery topics that a court would need to address.

ay a stranger to an arbitration agreement compel arbitration against its signatories? According to the Second Department in Degraw Construction Group v McGowan Builders, Inc., 2017 NY Slip Op 05580 (2nd Dept July 12, 2017), the answer is “sometimes”: a plaintiff cannot avoid arbitration with a company by substituting the company’s employees as defendants.

Our dispute began in the fair County of Queens, renowned for its spicy food and injury-prone athletes, when Degraw Construction Group, Inc. (“Degraw”) agreed to perform construction work for McGowan Builders, Inc. (“McGowan”). McGowan apparently did not pay what Degraw felt was owed, because Degraw brought suit in Supreme Court, Queens County, notwithstanding that the contract, signed by Degraw and McGowan, contained an arbitration clause covering “all disputes arising thereunder.” Degraw also brought causes of action for conversion, unfair competition, and tortious interference against McGowan and several of McGowan’s employees and officers (the “Individual Defendants”). The Supreme Court (Dufficy, J.) granted McGowan’s motion to compel arbitration. However, the Individual Defendants’ corresponding motion was denied because they were not parties to the Contract and therefore had no right to enforce its arbitration provisions.

The Second Department reversed, holding that the individual defendants, although not signatories to the agreement, had the right to enforce it. The Second Department noted first that because “a corporation can only act through its officers and employees […], any breach of the agreement would necessarily have to occur as a result of some action or inaction attributable to an officer or employee of [McGowan].”

This principle girded the Court of Appeals’ 1996 decision in Hirschfeld Prods. v. Mirvish, (cited in the Second Department’s Degraw decision), in which the president and chairman of a theatrical production company were sued in their individual capacities for their unprofitable 1993 production of Hair at the Old Vic Theatre in London (the Spectator’s review: “this was once a great and classic theatre, and what it is doing housing a shoddy, roadshow-like revival of breathtaking inadequacy remains something of a mystery”). As in Degraw, the officers were not signatories to the company’s arbitration agreement. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal granted their motion to compel arbitration, noting that “a rule allowing corporate officers and employees to enforce arbitration agreements entered into by their corporation is necessary not only to prevent circumvention of arbitration agreements but also to effectuate the intent of the signatory parties to protect individuals acting on behalf of the principal in furtherance of the agreement.”

The Second Department also cited Highland HC, LLC v. Scott, in which the plaintiff sued an architectural and construction company, as well as individual officers of the defendant company, due to alleged “design flaws” and “substandard work.” The contract contained an arbitration provision, but was unsigned by the company’s officers or employees in their individual capacities. Despite this, the Second Department (citing Hirschfeld) compelled arbitration, affirming the rule that non-signatories to arbitration agreements “are entitled to enforce the arbitration clause to the extent that their alleged misconduct relates to their behavior as agents of the [signatory company].”

An important takeaway from these decisions is the close relation between the individual defendants’ alleged conduct and their employers’ performance under the contracts. In Hirschfeld, the individual defendants, as president and chairman, controlled and supervised the company’s role in the production. And in Highland, the individual defendants were charged with completing the architectural and construction work on the company’s behalf.   Thus, a key element of the rule affording non-signatory agents the benefit of arbitration agreements signed by their principals is that the non-signatory’s conduct must relate to the performance of its principal’s contractual obligations.

In light of the general policy favoring arbitration, the holding in Degraw should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, potential litigants should be aware that a clause providing that “all disputes” arising out of an agreement shall be resolved by arbitration cannot be circumvented simply by naming a counter-party’s employees as individual defendants.

* A special thanks to Farrell Fritz Summer Law Clerk Kyle Gruder for his research and drafting assistance with this post. Kyle is a student at Hofstra University School of Law and anticipates receiving his J.D. in 2018.