In Carpatsky Petroleum Corp v PJSC Ukrnafta  EWHC 769 (Comm), the Commercial Court has upheld the enforcement of a US$147 million Stockholm Chamber of Commerce (the “SCC”) award issued in 2010 in favour of Carpatsky Petroleum Corporation, incorporated in Delaware (“Carpatsky”), against PJSC Ukrnafta (“Ukrnafta”), Ukraine’s oil and gas producer (the “Award”). Enforcement was allowed despite an argument from Ukrnafta that the arbitration agreement was signed by Carpatsky’s predecessor, which had ceased to exist in 1996. Given that the parties had already fought this issue on the enforcement front in a number of jurisdictions, including Ukraine and Sweden (the seat of arbitration), the Court had to consider whether an issue estoppel arose as a result of the foreign courts’ findings, noting that there was a public interest in sustaining the finality of supervisory courts’ decisions on properly referred procedural issues arising from the arbitration.
The parties and the Agreements
In 1995, Carpatsky Texas (“CT”) and Ukrnafta’s subsidiary SE Poltavanaftogaz (“PNG”) entered into a joint activity agreement to develop and exploit a gas field in Ukraine (the “JAA”). In June 1996, CT was merged into Carpatsky: CT ceased to exist, Carpatsky assuming CT’s rights and obligations. In October 1996, PNG and “Carpatsky Petroleum Corporation, registered in Texas” entered into a restated JAA, which contained an arbitration clause. In 1998, the parties executed an addendum to the restated JAA (the “JAA Addendum”, and together with the JAA and the restated JAA, the “Agreements”).The JAA Addendum (i) replaced PNG with Ukrnafta; and (ii) amended the arbitration clause such that it referred disputes to SCC arbitration. All the Agreements were signed by the President of “Carpatsky Petroleum Corporation” and stamped with CT’s seal.
In 2007, Carpatsky filed a request for arbitration with the SCC. Ukrnafta submitted an answer without a reservation as to jurisdiction. Following two rounds of submissions by each party, Ukrnafta served objections to the tribunal’s jurisdiction alleging that there was no valid arbitration agreement under Swedish law because the Agreements were made with CT, which had ceased to exist. The tribunal determined that it had jurisdiction, at the very least because the parties had entered into an arbitration agreement by engaging in the arbitration without raising an objection to jurisdiction. The arbitration proceeded on the merits, and the tribunal issued the Award in favour of Carpatsky.
In early 2009, upon the application of the Ukrainian Deputy Public Prosecutor, the Kyiv Commercial Court held that the Agreements had not been executed as they were signed by CT, which had ceased to exist as at the date of the Agreements (the “Kyiv Court Decision”).
After the tribunal issued the Award, Carpatsky commenced enforcement proceedings in Ukraine. In 2013, the application was dismissed with reference to the Kyiv Court Decision on the ground that there was no written arbitration agreement (the “Kyiv Enforcement Decision”, and together with the Kyiv Court Decision, the “Kyiv Decisions”).
In 2009, Ukrnafta brought proceedings before the Stockholm District Court arguing, with reference to Swedish law, that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction. The proceedings were stayed pending the arbitration. In 2011, the District Court rejected Ukrnafta’s argument, confirming that the tribunal had jurisdiction.
In addition, Ukrnafta sought to set aside the Award on the basis that the tribunal had exceeded its mandate and had made errors which affected the outcome of the arbitration (the “Swedish Challenge Proceedings”). In 2015, the Svea Court of Appeal rejected all Ukrnafta’s challenges to the Award (the “Swedish Challenge Proceedings Decision”).
In February 2009, Ukrnafta sued Carpatsky in the 190th District Court of Harris County, Texas asserting a number of causes of action, including negligent misrepresentation, fraud and misappropriation of trade secrets, and contending that all amendments to the JAA after the date of the merger were void ab initio. The case was removed to federal court, and the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas (“SDT”) stayed the litigation pending the arbitration proceedings. The stay was lifted following the termination of the Swedish Challenge Proceedings. In October 2017, the SDT granted Carpatsky’s motion to confirm the Award. Ukrnafta appealed.
In April 2020, several days after the Commercial Court in London upheld enforcement of the Award, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (the “Fifth Circuit”) dismissed Ukrnafta’s challenges to the District Court’s order confirming the award. In its ruling, the Fifth Circuit found that under Delaware law, the President of “Carpatsky Petroleum Corporation” had authority to enter into the JAA Addendum on behalf of Carpatsky and the use of CT’s seal was irrelevant. The Fifth Circuit also noted that Ukrnafta waived its right to challenge the tribunal’s jurisdiction by submitting to arbitration proceedings, and, in any event, an arbitration agreement was created during the arbitration. The Fifth Circuit dismissed the due process violations pleaded by Ukrnafta, noting, in particular, that the merits hearing looked “like a full-blown federal trial”. Finally, the Fifth Circuit held that allowing the Kyiv Decisions to prevent enforcement would “gut international arbitration and interfere with the global commerce it promotes.”
Carpatsky successfully applied to the English court to enforce the Award. Ukrnafta sought to set aside the order granting permission to enforce before the Commercial Court. Ukrnafta argued that under Ukrainian law there was no valid arbitration agreement given that the JAA Addendum was executed on behalf of CT. Ukrnafta also contended there was a serious procedural irregularity in that the tribunal (i) dealt with an issue concerning a limitation of liability clause on a basis which had not been pleaded; and (ii) took a procedurally irregular approach to the agreed methodology for assessing damages, which resulted in a serious mathematical error.
Overview of the Commercial Court decision
There was a valid arbitration agreement
The Court held that Ukraine was estopped by conduct from arguing that Ukrainian law governed the arbitration agreement given that it had argued that Swedish law was applicable in the arbitration and Swedish proceedings. It concluded that under Swedish law there was a valid arbitration agreement in the JAA Addendum between Ukrnafta and Carpatsky, noting, in particular, that the parties intended both objectively and subjectively, to enter into the JAA Addendum with each other. It further noted that both (i) the conduct of the parties’ representatives in the arbitration under the SCC Rules and (ii) the parties’ participation in the arbitration and exchange of pleadings gave rise to an arbitration agreement even if there had not been one before.
No issue estoppel on the validity of the arbitration agreement
The Court reminded the parties that an issue estoppel can arise from foreign court decisions in relation to enforcement, referring to Diag Human SE v Czech Republic (discussed in one of our previous blog posts). However, given that the Ukrainian courts did not address the existence of an arbitration agreement as a matter of Swedish law, an issue estoppel did not arise. The Court noted that to the extent its determinations related to the validity of the JAA Addendum under Ukrainian law it would be unjust to recognise an issue estoppel as precluding Carpatsky from successfully contending that the JAA Addendum was valid.
Issue estoppel on limitation of liability and on damages methodology
The Court held that there was a public interest in sustaining the finality of decisions of the supervisory courts (the Swedish courts in this instance) on properly referred procedural issues arising from the arbitration. It also noted that, in assessing whether there was an issue estoppel arising from a decision of the supervisory courts in respect of an arbitration-related procedural issue, English courts should not adopt an overly-narrow approach to whether the same issue has been decided by the supervisory court. The Court considered the arguments raised by Ukrnafta in the Swedish proceedings, concluding that Ukrnafta’s procedural irregularity complaints were either substantially the same (in the case of the limitation of liability point) or the same (in the case of the damages methodology) to those pursued before the Court. These arguments had been considered (and rejected) in the Swedish Challenge Proceedings Decision, which gave rise to an issue estoppel.
The Commercial Court’s decision in this case is another clear example of the English courts’ pro-enforcement stance. The judgment is also an important reminder to commercial parties that their participation in the arbitration proceedings may in itself be capable of constituting an agreement to arbitrate, even if the arbitration agreement in the relevant contract is in some way defective. In addition, the decision reiterates that the principle of issue estoppel may affect the parties’ ability either to enforce an award or resist enforcement in the English courts where there have already been attempts to enforce or challenge the award in foreign courts, especially before the courts of the seat of arbitration.
For more information, please contact Brenda Horrigan, Partner, Chiara Cilento, Associate, Olga Dementyeva, Associate, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.