Forum-selection clauses were once widely disfavored by many courts on the theory that such provisions operated to improperly divest the court of jurisdiction.  But now, it is well-recognized that parties to a contract may freely select a forum of their choosing to resolve a dispute arising from that contract.  In fact, forum-selection clauses are now prima facie valid unless the party seeking to avoid the enforcement of a forum-selection clause makes a “strong showing” that it should be set aside. But what does that mean?

A party challenging a forum-selection clause must show:

  • Enforcement of the clause would be unreasonable and unjust, or in contravention of public policy;
  • The clause is invalid because of fraud or overreaching; or
  • A trial in the contractual forum would be so gravely difficult and inconvenient that the challenging party would, for all practical purposes, be deprived of its day in court.

This is a significantly high burden to meet.  Indeed, a recent decision by Justice Emerson in Somerset Fine Home Bldg., Inc. v Simplex Indus., Inc., 2018 NY Slip Op 51845 (U) (Sup Ct, Suffolk County Dec. 14, 2018) serves as a reminder that simply claiming “unequal bargaining power” in drafting the contract, or the “financial distress” of traveling to another state may be insufficient to set aside a valid forum-selection clause.

The plaintiff in Somerset was a home builder located in Suffolk County, New York, and the defendant was a manufacturer of modular homes located in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  In May 2017, the parties entered into a sales agreement (the “Agreement”) whereby the plaintiff agreed to purchase a modular home from the defendant. The Agreement contained a forum-selection clause providing that any dispute related to the Agreement would be determined by the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and that the exclusive forum would be the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania.  Ultimately, the plaintiff sued the defendant in Suffolk County, New York for, among other things, breach of the Agreement.  The defendant moved to dismiss arguing that the parties expressly agreed to litigate their dispute in Pennsylvania.

Justice Emerson rejected plaintiff’s argument that the Agreement and forum-selection clause were “unconscionable,” noting that, as an initial matter, the forum-selection clause was “not hidden or tucked away within a complex document of inordinate length.”  Rather, the clause appeared in the same size and print as the rest of the agreement, each page of which was initialed by plaintiff’s principal.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that “it was in a weaker bargaining position than defendant” and that it “had no choice” but to enter into the Agreement, explaining that a forum-selection clause will not be invalidated merely because the parties do not possess equal bargaining power.  Importantly, the Agreement at issue in Somerset, like many agreements, clearly stated that each party had “the opportunity to obtain the assistance of counsel in the negotiation, drafting and execution of the agreement.”

Finally, plaintiff’s argument that it was a “small company” that could not travel to Pennsylvania was equally unavailing, as Justice Emerson explained that “simply claiming financial distress does not warrant setting aside a valid forum-selection clause.”  The plaintiff in Somerset did not demonstrate that commencing an action in Pennsylvania would be so financially prohibitive that it would be deprived of its day in court, or that the Pennsylvania court would treat it unfairly.

And so, because the forum-selection clause in Somerset was the product of an arm’s-length business agreement between sophisticated commercial entities, and was neither outrageous nor oppressive so as to warrant a finding of unconscionability, the court dismissed the case.

Somerset reaffirms the principle that a forum-selection clause is prima facie valid and will not be set aside unless the challenging party makes a “strong showing” that the clause is unreasonable, unjust or invalid because of fraud.  An example of a forum-selection clause set aside on the grounds of fraud is found in People v Northern Leasing Sys., Inc., 60 Misc 3d 867 [Sup Ct, NY County Nov. 17, 2017].  There, the forum-selection clause was held to be invalid where the various lease agreements at issue, among other things, were materially and fraudulently altered after execution, contained forged signatures, and were otherwise “permeated with fraud”.

And, when would trial in another forum be “so gravely difficult and inconvenient that the challenging party would, for all practical purposes, be deprived of his or her day in court”?  Well, some courts have vitiated forum-selection clauses when enforcement would essentially extinguish an otherwise reasonable claim, such as where the costs and inconvenience of forcing a party to litigate a case in a foreign state would effectively end the case before it began (seeYoshida v PC Tech USA, 22 AD3d 373 [1st Dept 2005] [forum-selection clause invalid where forum selected was Tokyo, Japan, with a totally foreign language and vastly different laws, so as to effectively “deprive plaintiff of his day in court”]; Northern Leasing Systems, Inc. v French, 48 Misc 3d 43 [1st Dept 2015] [forum in New York gravely inconvenient where parties’ agreement, businesses, and equipment were all located in California, and where defendant, an 86-year-old man, was a resident of California]).

One Final Note: Contracting parties may also expressly consent to the specific designation of the Commercial Division as the exclusive forum in New York states.  This may be beneficial for more sophisticated contracting parties who wish to streamline the process of having their contractual dispute heard in the Commercial Division rather than in New York state courts generally, as the Commercial Division judges are generally well-versed in commercial law.   In fact, the Commercial Division Rules even supply a “sample choice of forum clause” at Appendix C for practitioners to borrow.

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A recent decision out of the Suffolk County Commercial Division underscores the importance of staying on top of your mail if you plan on leaving New York for an extended period of time.  Last week, in Matter of New Brunswick Theological Seminary v Van Dyke, 2018 NY Slip Op 51204(U), Justice Emerson confirmed a $3,229,097 arbitration award against a respondent who failed to appear at an arbitration, claiming she did not receive notice of the proceedings against her.

The respondent was a retired investment banker who, in 2000, entered into an agreement with petitioner to act as its investment advisor and broker. The respondent managed petitioner’s account until May 2016, when the petitioner terminated her services. Thereafter, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) commenced an investigation against respondent in connection with her alleged mishandling of certain customer accounts, including petitioner’s account. The investigation ultimately concluded with respondent being permanently barred from the securities industry.

Petitioner proceeded to arbitrate its claims against the respondent.  Between July and October of 2017, FINRA sent to the respondent several notices regarding the arbitration at the addresses the respondent provided FINRA for service of process. One notice, sent by certified mail to the respondent’s home addresses in New York City and Sag Harbor, was returned as “unclaimed, unable to forward.” But the other notices, sent to the same two addresses, were not returned.

The respondent did not appear at the arbitration. Nevertheless, the arbitrator determined that, since the respondent had been served with several notices by regular mail and by certified mail, she would be bound by the arbitrator’s ruling and determination, which ultimately awarded petitioner $3,229,097.00, with interest. Thereafter, the petitioner commenced a proceeding to confirm the arbitrator’s award, and the respondent cross-moved to vacate the award, arguing that: (1) the arbitrator erred in finding that service had been effected, (2) respondent had been deprived of due process, and (3) it would be fundamentally unfair to confirm the arbitration award under the circumstances.

According to the respondent, she had been in California for five months and did not receive notice of the arbitration until January 19, 2018, when she was served with the petition and arbitration award at her home in Sag Harbor. She claimed that, while in California, the mail sent to her Sag Harbor address was held at the Post Office, and the mail sent to her New York City address was de minimus enough to fit into the mailbox, and remained there until she returned to New York. Respondent further claimed that, upon returning to New York, she did not “prioritize going through the months of held mail and that she was still going through it when she was served with the petition and arbitration award on January 19, 2018” and that petitioner should have attempted to advise her of the arbitration through email.

Justice Emerson declined to vacate the arbitration award, holding that the respondent was not deprived of due process. First, Justice Emerson found that the respondent knew, or should have known, that the petitioner might proceed to arbitration while she was in California. Indeed, the respondent was a seasoned investment banker and broker who knew that FINRA had opened an investigation concerning her mishandling of petitioner’s account, and that that investigation concluded with respondent being permanently barred from the securities industry. According to Justice Emerson, respondent should have expected that petitioner would pursue its arbitral remedies against her and yet, “the respondent left for California for five months without advising FINRA of her address in California and without forwarding her mail.”

Next, Justice Emerson noted the respondent’s continued obligation to maintain and update her address with FINRA for service of process, even though she was permanently barred from the securities industry. Because the respondent failed to do so, FINRA was left with no choice but to serve respondent at the addresses it had on file for service of process. Accordingly, the Court found that, under the Court of Appeals’ holding in Beckman v Greentree Securities, Inc., 87 NY2d 568, 570 (1996), the notices were “reasonably calculated to apprise the respondent of the pendency of the arbitration and to afford her an opportunity to present her objections.” And so, even though one of the notices was returned as “unclaimed,” additional mailings were sent to the same two addresses, none of which were returned.

Last, the Court found that the respondent “made no effort to ensure that she received mail from FINRA while in California, although she knew or should have known that petitioner might proceed to arbitration.” Specifically, the respondent “failed to provide FINRA with her address in California, as required, and failed to have her mail forwarded.” Indeed, there was correspondence from FINRA waiting for respondent when she eventually came back to New York, which respondent also ignored. Under these circumstances, the Court found that “a strong inference may be drawn that the respondent was attempting to avoid receiving any mail from FINRA and that she ignored the mail that was received.”