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.