Private Foreign Arbitration: Can U.S. Federal Courts Compel Discovery?

BACKGROUND

Section 1782 of Title 28 defines the “scope of discovery that foreign litigants may seek in the United States for use in foreign proceedings.” Specifically, Section 1782(a) authorizes the district court to compel discovery “for use in a proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal.” 

The Supreme Court encountered a Section 1782(a) dispute in the case of Intel Corp. v. Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (2004). The Court held that Section 1782(a) “authorizes, but does not require discovery assistance,” and the Court decided to “leave it to the courts below to ensure an airing adequate to determine what, if any, assistance is appropriate.” The Court in Intel, however, only considered whether Section 1782(a) discovery would apply to public foreign tribunals; where it concluded that it would. The Court remained silent on whether Section 1782(a) discovery would also apply to private foreign arbitration, leading to the current division among the Circuit Courts. 

THE ISSUE

Is the definition of “foreign or international tribunal” under 28 U.S.C. 1782(a) limited only to state-sponsored public tribunals; or does the definition include discovery for private foreign tribunals as well? In other words, can district court judges compel discovery for private foreign arbitration?

THE SPLIT

The Seventh Circuit recently joined the Second and Fifth Circuits by adopting a narrow interpretation of “foreign or international tribunal” to only include public tribunals and exclude private ones. These circuits conclude that compelling discovery in private foreign disputes would undermine the speedy and cost-effective nature of the arbitration process. In recent years, however, the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have disagreed, opting for a broad interpretation of Section 1782(a). These circuits posit that the purpose of the Section 1782(a) is to foster international cooperation through discovery processes and conclude that district courts should have the discretion to apply Section 1782(a) to all foreign tribunals, both public and private. 

The Second, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits

In September 2020, the Seventh Circuit joined the Second and Fifth Circuits in affirming a narrow interpretation of Section 1782(a). In Servotronics, Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC (2020), (“Servotronics II”), the court held that Section 1782(a) “did not authorize the district court to compel discovery for use in a private foreign arbitration.” There was a separate case arising from the same arbitration that came before the Fourth Circuit in March 2020 and is discussed below. In Servotronics II, Rolls-Royce had manufactured an engine for a Boeing aircraft and incorporated a Servotronics valve in the design. The airplane was then destroyed in a fire during testing, and Rolls-Royce settled with Boeing for the loss of the plane. Subsequently, Rolls-Royce, a UK-based corporation, sought indemnification from Servotronics, which was based in the United States. The two companies had a long-term agreement that mandated binding arbitration in a London-based private tribunal called the Chartered Institute of Arbiters (“CIArb”). Servotronics then applied for a Section 1782(a) discovery request that would compel Boeing to produce documents that would be used in the London arbitration. The district court judge ultimately denied this discovery request, finding for Rolls-Royce and Boeing.

In interpreting Section 1782(a), the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court ruling, stating that “foreign or international tribunal” should be defined as “a governmental, administrative, or quasi-governmental tribunal operating pursuant to the foreign country’s practice and procedure.” This definition would consequently exclude any private foreign arbitrations. The Seventh Circuit rejected the Fourth and Sixth Circuit’s broad definition of “foreign and international tribunals,” which included private arbitration. The Seventh Circuit noted that if the ambiguity of the word “tribunal” was interpreted broadly, this could expand the ability of federal courts to compel discovery in foreign arbitration past what is normally allowed in domestic arbitration. 

In January 1999, the Second Circuit was one of the first to confront an issue concerning Section 1782(a) in NBC v. Bear Stearns & Co. (1999). In NBC, the plaintiff, US-based news corporation NBC was involved in a Mexican arbitration with Mexican television broadcasting company Azteca, of which Bear Sterns was an investor. In interpreting Section 1782(a), the Second Circuit noted that “although the phrase ‘foreign or international tribunal’ does not unambiguously exclude private arbitral panels, neither does it unambiguously include them.” The court then concluded that the phrase, considered in the context of statutory and legislative history, is limited to public foreign arbitration and not private tribunals. Two months after the Second Circuit’s decision in NBC, the Fifth Circuit adopted this narrow interpretation of Section 1782(a) in Republic of Kazakhstan v. Biedermann Int’l (1999). The Fifth Circuit held that the statute was “not intended to authorize resort to United States federal courts to assist discovery in private international arbitrations.” The court highlighted the concern that allowing for discovery in private arbitrations would “complicate and undermine” the entire international arbitration process. 

The Fourth and Sixth Circuits

The Fourth and Sixth Circuits have both held that a broad definition of Section 1782(a) is more appropriate. In March 2020, the Fourth Circuit analyzed the scope of 1782(a) in the Servotronics, Inc. v. Boeing Co. (2020), (“Servotronics I”), a case arising from the same arbitration dispute that would later come before the Seventh Circuit. The Fourth Circuit came to a very different result than the Seventh Circuit, reasoning that the “district court functions effectively as a surrogate for a foreign tribunal by taking testimony and statements for use in the foreign proceeding” under Section 1782(a). The Fourth Circuit concluded that the application of Section 1782(a) should be determined by district courts and not parties, so the district courts should possess the ability to compel discovery for private foreign arbitrations. 

The Fourth Circuit’s decision in Servotronics I aligns with the Sixth Circuit’s September 2019 decision in Abdul Latif Jameel Transportation Co. v. FedEx Corp. (2019). In Abdul, the Sixth Circuit held that the word “tribunal” should be interpreted broadly and the “district court’s authority to compel discovery for use in foreign litigation extends to private foreign arbitrations.” The court stressed that the Supreme Court decision in Intel made the application of Section 1782(a) discretionary, and the broad interpretation would be best for giving this discretion to the district courts. 

LOOKING FORWARD

At this point, Rolls-Royce stated that it intended to file a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. Whether or not the Servotronics case moves forward, the Court should review the interpretation of Section 1782(a) at some point, resolving the confusion left by Intel. If the Supreme Court opted for a broad interpretation of Section 1782(a), as given by the Fourth and Sixth Circuits, there would likely be a substantial increase in discovery for foreign private arbitrations, increasing costly litigation and further burdening the courts. 

Additionally, there is a pending case, HRC-Hainan Holding Co., LLC v. Yihan Hu (2020), before the Ninth Circuit that concerns a Section 1782(a) dispute involving discovery into a Chinese in vitro fertilization project that is before a Chinese arbitration commission. So, it will also be interesting to see what the Ninth Circuit decides and whether a decision, in this case, comes before a Supreme Court ruling on this issue.