Non-Signatories Bound By Arbitration Agreement

[The following post is
contributed by Bhushan Shah at
Mansukhlal Hiralal & Company, Mumbai]
The Bombay High Court in a recent
judgment of Rakesh
S Kathotia and Anr vs Milton Global Limited and Ors
applied the
‘group of companies doctrine’ upheld by the Apex Court in Cholro Controls India Private Limited v.
Severn Trent Water Purification Inc & Ors
,
(2013) 1 SCC 641 whereby an arbitration agreement entered into by a company,
being one within a group of companies, can bind its non­signatory affiliates
or sister or parent concerns if the circumstances demonstrate that the mutual
intention of all the parties was to bind both the signatories and the non-signatory
affiliates.
Background
This
case was an appeal before the division bench of the Bombay High Court from an
order passed by the single judge in an arbitration petition (“Petition”) dismissing the application
under Section 9 of
the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (“Arbitration Act”). The
primary ground for dismissal of the petition by the single bench was that there
is no ‘identity’ of the
parties to the arbitration agreement, as contained in the Joint Venture
Agreement dated 14 July 2001 (“JVA”) and the parties to the application.
Under
the JVA, the Subhkam Group and the Vaghani Group jointly constituted Milton
Global Limited, a joint venture company (JVC)
with each holding 49.99% and 50.01% respectively. The management of JVC was
vested in a board of directors to be appointed by the Subhkam Group and the Vaghani
Group. Under the JVA, the Subhkam Group and the Vaghani Group were defined as
follows respectively:
– “The Subhkam Group shall mean Mr Rakesh S
Kathotia and such other entities controlled by him or his immediate
relatives or his group companies directly or indirectly.
– “The
Vaghani Group shall mean Milton Plastics Limited Mr Dineshkumar Ishwarlal
Vaghani, Mr Kanaiyalal Ishwarlal Vaghani, Mr Chirnajiv Ishwarlal Vaghani, Mr
Nilesh Ishwarlal Vaghani and Mr Madhup Bansilal Vaghani and their
immediate relatives taken together and such other entities controlled by them
or their immediate relatives directly or indirectly
.”
A
dispute arose between the parties under the JVA, wherein the Subhkam Group
alleged that the Vaghani Group set up a competitive company and siphoned the
business of JVC to the competitive company. The Subhkam Group filed a Section 9
Arbitration Petition before the single bench of the Bombay High Court. The single
judge dismissed the said Arbitration Petition solely on the ground that there
was no identity of the parties to the JVA and parties against whom the interim
measured were sought. This order of single bench was challenged before the
division bench.
Division Bench Decision                      
The
Bombay High Court in its judgment observed that the parties to the JVA were not
merely the named individuals or entities. After a perusal of various clauses of
the JVC, it came to the conclusion that the JVA was executed between the ‘Vaghani
Group’ and the ‘Subhkam Group’ as defined under the JVA.
The
Court further observed that that the terms and phraseology contained in the agreement
cannot be ignored so as to render it meaningless. A commercial document should
be interpreted having regard to words and phraseology therein and no term /
phrase should be treated as meaningless, especially if they are consistent with
the other parts of the agreement. In case of ambiguity, the ‘intention’ of the
parties should be determined and honoured to the extent possible.
The
Court in the light of the aforesaid reasons held that the said arbitration petition
could not have been dismissed on the ground that there was ‘no identity
between the parties
’. Hence, the non – signatories will be bound by the JVA.
However, after determining the maintainability
of the said arbitration application on the identity of the parties, the Court rejected
the appeal on the merits of the case.
Comment
The
Supreme Court has in the past upheld the aforesaid theory and
has applied it in a number of arbitrations so as to justify the
tribunal assuming jurisdiction over a party who is not a signatory to
the   contract   containing   the   arbitration agreement. By following the Supreme Court’s judgment, the Bombay High Court has
demonstrated that it is open to interpreting an arbitration agreement in a
broad manner and is willing to look into the intention of the parties to
analyse as to whether non-signatories to the agreement will be bound by the
agreement in terms of the words and phraseology of the agreement.  While
this is an interesting judgment, in my view parties must be very cautious while
drafting their agreements. While this doctrine is being promoted by the courts
to further the intentions of the parties, there is also a possibility of abuse
of the doctrine. A draftsman has to be more responsible and use correct and
watertight language in agreements. One has to be very cautious with the words
in which it couches the party references when casting any duties, obligations
or granting rights under an agreement as the courts are showing willingness to
look beyond the technicalities.

Bhushan Shah

About the author

Umakanth Varottil

Umakanth Varottil is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. He specializes in corporate law and governance, mergers and acquisitions and cross-border investments. Prior to his foray into academia, Umakanth was a partner at a pre-eminent law firm in India.

1 comment

  • OFFHAND

    :….as the courts are showing willingness to look beyond the technicalities."

    To put the message/caution in a better light, the trend of the view of courts in the given area of controversy does not simply stop short of looking beyond 'the technicalities', but travels far beyond.To say it differently, courts appear to be inclined to resolve such disputes by going into the vexing and dubious facet of all, being so dubbed 'intention', as opposed to basic principles of 'legality' or legitimacy'; that is,in preference to 'substance', rather than to the pure 'form'. As experience has shown, if so, then,any amount of care or caution, howsoever diligently taken in drafting or structuring (the language / phraseology) the contract agreement in order to bring out the real 'intention',the possibility of an adverse view cannot be ruled out. In short, preference to 'substance', ignoring the 'form', is bound to continue to prove a treacherous path to adopt, because of the obvious pitfalls that entails.

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