Case of the Day: Agility Public Warehousing Co. v. Supreme Foodservice

U.S. military "meal ready to eat"The case of the day is Agility Public Warehousing Co. v. Supreme Foodservice GmbH (S.D.N.Y. 2011). Supreme wanted to bid on a US government contract to supply food to the troops in Afghanistan. It made a contract with Agility Public Warehousing and Professional Contract Administrators, firms that supplied food to troops in Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan, under which APW and PCA were to provide food pricing and supply chains for use in Supreme’s bid.

Supreme won the contract in 2005, but as the war went on, the government asked Supreme to expand the scope of services and to provide food to forward operating bases. Supreme agreed, and it made a side agreement that provided for compensation for APW and PCA on account of the changed circumstances.

In 2007, Supreme learned that APW was being investigated for illegal procurement practices. APW and PCA refused to provide pricing information to Supreme, and Supreme terminated the agreement for material breach and ceased making payments—including some payments for services provided prior to the termination. APW and PCA commenced an arbitration in New York under the AAA rules, seeking the unpaid amounts, or in the alternative, seeking the contractually defined post-termination fee. While the arbitration was pending, a grand jury indicted APW for fraud. The basic allegation was that APW had misrepresented its buying power for food items in the Iraq/Kuwait/Jordan contract. Supreme then asserted, in the arbitration, that APW and PCA had fraudulently induced it to enter into the contract by “making promises that they intended to fulfill only by illegal means.” At the arbitration hearing, Supreme sought the testimony of several APW executives, but they refused to testify—though they did not formally invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Supreme argued that the executives’ failure to testify was fatal to APW’s claims, because under New York law, where a claimant’s material witnesses invoke the Fifth Amendment, the claim should be dismissed. Supreme also asked the tribunal to infer from the refusal to testify that APW had in fact acted illegally. Finally, Supreme argued that APW could not recover, because a contract procured by fraud is unenforceable.

The tribunal awarded damages to APW and PCA, finding that they were entitled to the payments relating to the pre-termination period Supreme had refused to make, and to the reduced termination payment rather than the greater regular payments that would have been due post-termination had the termination been improper. The tribunal also dismissed Supreme’s claims for rescission and fraudulent inducement. The total damages awarded to APW and PCA were more than $38 million. The tribunal rejected the argument that the witnesses’ failure to testify was fatal to the claim, though the tribunal did draw an inference against APW that led to the conclusion that APW had materially breached the agreement.

APW and PCA moved to confirm the award. Supreme moved to vacate the award under § 10(a)(3) and (4) of the FAA, which provides:

In any of the following cases the United States court in and for the district wherein the award was made may make an order vacating the award upon the application of any party to the arbitration:
* * *
(3) where the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause shown, or in refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy; or of any other misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced; or
(4) where the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.

Supreme also argued for vacatur on the grounds that the award was in manifest disregard of the law, and it opposed confirmation on the grounds that the award was contrary to public policy, which is one of the grounds for refusing confirmation permitted by the New York Convention. (That is, the public policy point is a permitted ground for refusing confirmation. Manifest disregard is highly contested and is probably not a permitted ground).

Judge Marrero confirmed the award. He held that under New York law, dismissal was not a mandatory consequence of a claimant failing to produce its material witnesses to testify. Therefore, the tribunal did not violate public policy or manifestly disregard the law by refusing to dismiss the claim on that basis. The court did not really discuss the details of the § 10(a)(3) argument, other than to make the general point that it applies only when “fundamental fairness is violated”, and not in cases of ordinary errors in the admission of evidence. [N.B. I have a case on appeal now involving the Uniform Arbitration Act’s equivalent to § 10(a)(3) and so I am not going to give a detailed discussion of my views of the statute here].

Photo credit: foam (license)

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