In Breach of Employment Contract Case, NY Court Holds Arbitration Clause Unenforceable
It is no secret that mandatory arbitration clauses have essentially become standard fare in business contracts, particularly in the employment or consultant context. But, as a Federal appeals court recently held, "It is well-accepted that although the presumption in favor of arbitration is strong, "the obligation to arbitrate nevertheless remains a creature of contract." Louis Dreyfus Negoce S.A. v. Blystad Shipping & Trading Inc., 252 F.3d 218, 224 (2d Cir. 2001). On a practical level, that means that there are some important facts that must be in place before a New York court will bar a lawsuit, and compel the parties to pursue arbitration; one such fact is that the party seeking to compel arbitration must actually be a party to the underlying contract - or at the very least, a tacitly acknowledged third-party beneficiary of the contract (i.e., that the contract was entered into for their benefit). And, according to a New York Federal judge in a May 20 opinion, that was exactly what was missing in Miness v. Ahuja. In that case, the plaintiff sold to defendants several nursing homes that had been owned by his family. As part of the purchase agreement, the defendants agreed to retain plaintiff as a consultant for a period of two years, providing that the nursing homes met certain performance criteria. After defendants terminated plaintiff - well before the expiration of the two-year period, plaintiff sued, and defendants predictably sought to dismiss the case on the grounds that it was barred by a mandatory arbitration clause that was in the agreement. There was one "little" problem with this argument, however; the entities that signed the agreement with the plaintiff were not the same ones that were sued. The defendants' operating companies - which had signed the employment agreement - were not parties to the lawsuit, and therefore, the Court held, lacked standing to enforce the arbitration provision of the contract, stating: "[T]he only signatories to the Miness Employment Agreement are Miness and the Operating Companies. The Operating Companies are not parties in this action, and thus cannot invoke its provisions in this case. As for the defendants, none are party to the Miness Employment Agreement, and unless they are explicit third party beneficiaries of the contract, they cannot enforce its terms. See Premium Mortg. Corp. v. Equifax, Inc., 583 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2009) ("A non-party to a contract governed by New York law lacks standing to enforce the agreement in the absence of terms that 'clearly evidence an intent to permit enforcement by the third party' in question," quoting Fourth Ocean Putnam Corp. v. Interstate Wrecking Co., 66 N.Y.2d 38, 45, 495 N.Y.S.2d 1, 485 N.E.2d 208 (1985)). Here, there is nothing in the Miness Employment Agreement that suggests that the defendants have a right to enforce the contract as third parties."
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