An arbitration clause means arbitrate

The Irelands were Subway franchisees.

Their franchise agreement with Subway included an arbitration clause:

10. DISPUTE RESOLUTION. The parties want to settle all issues quickly, amicably, and in the most cost effective fashion. To accomplish these goals, the parties agree to the following provisions that will apply to resolve any dispute or claim arising out of or relating to this Agreement, or any other Franchise Agreement the parties have with each other (a ‘Dispute’):

c. The parties will arbitrate the Dispute if the mediation clause in Subparagraph 10.a. is not enforceable, or the parties do not settle the Dispute under the informal discussion and mediation procedures above, or the Dispute is one which this Agreement provides will be submitted directly to arbitration, except as provided in this Agreement. The arbitration will be held in accordance with the United Nations Commission on International Trade Regulations and Law (UNCITRAL) Arbitration Rules administered by an arbitration association, such as the American Arbitration Association or the Institute of Arbitrators or Mediators Australia, at a hearing to be held in Queensland. The arbitration will be conducted in English and decided by a single arbitrator unless the law of Australia requires three (3) arbitrators. Any court having jurisdiction may enter judgment on the arbitrator’s award. Except as provided in this Agreement, a party must commence and pursue informal discussions, mediation, and arbitration to resolve Disputes before commencing legal action.

The Irelands, however, commenced proceedings against Subway in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) alleging breaches of the franchise agreement, negligence and misleading or deceptive conduct.

Subway applied to VCAT to have the proceeding referred to arbitration pursuant to clause 10. VCAT refused. The Supreme Court dismissed Subway’s appeal. The Court of Appeal, Maxwell P and Beach JA, Kyrou J dissenting, have allowed Subway’s further appeal and sent the matter to arbitration.

Section 8 of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic) provides:

8            Arbitration agreement and substantive claim before court (cf Model Law Art 8)

(1)  A court before which an action is brought in a matter which is the subject of an arbitration agreement must, if a party so requests not later than when submitting the party’s first statement on the substance of the dispute, refer the parties to arbitration unless it finds that the agreement is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed.

As the heading indicates, this provision is part of a national scheme to implement the UNCITRAL Model Law on commercial arbitration.

The “problem” was that reference to “court”. While it was not a defined term in the Act, there are any number of court rulings declaring in no uncertain terms that VCAT is not a court – it is an administrative tribunal.

Maxwell P and Beach JA standing back and looking at the big (international) picture, however, held that for the purposes of the Act – a law designed to promote commercial arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism – VCAT qualifies as a “court”. Maxwell P and Beach JA took somewhat different routes to reach that conclusion but it is perhaps best encapsulated in Maxwell P’s observation:

The clear policy of the Act (and of the model law which it enacts) is that, when parties have agreed to have disputes between them determined by private arbitration, neither party is at liberty to litigate the matter in dispute through the adjudicative mechanisms of the State. For this statutory purpose, in this statutory context, the Tribunal is indistinguishable from those other adjudicative bodies of the State which bear the title ‘court’.

I don’t know if other States or Territories operate under regimes similar to VCAT in, er, parallel to the court system but, as Croft J noted at first instance, Parliament set up VCAT to provide a speedy and inexpensive, low cost, accessible, efficient means of dispute resolution and, apparently, it handles the vast bulk of legal disputes here. But not disputes between franchisors and franchisees (where there is an arbitration clause).

Subway Systems Australia Pty Ltd v Ireland [2014] VSCA 142

Arbitrating IP disputes in Australia

Last year, IPwars reported on Hammerschlag J’s ruling that arbitrators under the Commercial Arbitration Acts 1984 (here and here (repealed and replaced by a 2010 Act)e.g.) can settle disputes about (1) the ownership of improvements under a technology licence agreement and (2) the licence fees payable if the technology be exploited in various ways in the future.

The arbitrator has now made an award finding that the patents owned by Lloyd or its subsidiary Solfast, the Solfast and Asura patents, were improvements covered by the licence and so should be assigned to Larkden.

Larkden has secured from Hammerschlag J orders enforcing that award and so requiring Lloyd to transfer ownership to Larkden.

Section 35 of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2010 (NSW) provides that an arbitrator’s award must be recognised and is enforceable subject to the formal requirements of s 35 and substantive grounds in s 36. The substantive grounds are:

Grounds for refusing recognition or enforcement

(1)Recognition or enforcement of an arbitral award, irrespective of the State or Territory in which it was made, may be refused only:

(a)at the request of the party against whom it is invoked, if that party furnishes to the Court proof that:

(i)a party to the arbitration agreement was under some incapacity, or the arbitration agreement is not valid under the law to which the parties have subjected it or, failing any indication in it, under the law of the State or Territory where the award was made, or

(ii)the party against whom the award is invoked was not given proper notice of the appointment of an arbitrator or of the arbitral proceedings or was otherwise unable to present the party’s case, or

(iii)the award deals with a dispute not contemplated by or not falling within the terms of the submission to arbitration, or it contains decisions on matters beyond the scope of the submission to arbitration, provided that, if the decisions on matters submitted to arbitration can be separated from those not so submitted, that part of the award which contains decisions on matters submitted to arbitration may be recognised and enforced, or

(iv)the composition of the arbitral tribunal or the arbitral procedure was not in accordance with the agreement of the parties or, failing such agreement, was not in accordance with the law of the State or Territory where the arbitration took place, or

(v)the award has not yet become binding on the parties or has been set aside or suspended by a court of the State or Territory in which, or under the law of which, that award was made, or

(b)if the Court finds that:

(i)the subject-matter of the dispute is not capable of settlement by arbitration under the law of this State, or

(ii)the recognition or enforcement of the award would be contrary to the public policy of this State.

Lloyd argued that the award in relation to the Solfast patents fell foul of s 36(1)(a)(iii) because the shares in Solfast, originally owned by Lloyd, had been transferred to GENV. Hammerschlag J found this was untenable: the transfer of shares in Solfast was void and set aside under s 267(1) of the Corporations Act. In addition, although developed by Solfast, the Solfast patents were improvements within the meaning of the licence because Lloyd had developed the patents through the medium of Solfast.

Lloyd’s second argument was predicated on s 36(1)(b)(ii) contending that some of the orders in the award were too vague and uncertain to be enforceable. This allegation included the order that Lloyd take all necessary steps to ensure that [Lardken]’s interests in the prosecution of the Assigned Patent Applications are protected and secured.

Hammerschlag J rejected this ground too. The orders were not vague and uncertain. Further, his Honour doubted they would offend public policy as not sufficiently concerning “the State’s basic notions of morality and justice”.

Larkden Pty Limited -v- Lloyd Energy Systems Pty Limited [2011] NSWSC 1331

The arbitrator.

You can arbitrate disputes under an IP licence agreement

Hamerschlag J, in the New South Wales Supreme Court, has ruled that disputes between a licensor and licensee under a technology licence agreement fall within the arbitration clause in the agreement and, consequently, the arbitrator’s determination that he has jurisdication is valid and binding on the parties.

The disputes between the parties related to (1) the application of the “improvements” clause and (2) whether licence fees would be payable if the licensee embarked on different strategies in the future. Hamerschlag J rejected the licensor’s, Lardken’s, argument that neither of the matters were disputes within the scope of the arbitration clause, cl. 19(b):

(b) All disputes arising in connection with this Licence, which are not adjusted by Licensing Agreement between the parties concerned, shall be finally settled by arbitration. The arbitration shall be held before a single arbitrator appointed by the parties or in the absence of agreement by the Chair of the Law Society of New South Wales, and conducted in accordance with and under the Commercial Arbitration Act 1984 of New South Wales. Judgment upon the award rendered may be entered in any court having jurisdiction, or application may be made to such court for a judicial acceptance of the award, or an order of enforcement as the case may be.

The improvements clause

Lardken licensed Lloyd to use Lardken’s technology relating to methods of collecting energy, converting it to heat, transferring the heat energy to a storage medium based on graphite and extracting and releasing the heat energy into useable form.

The licence agreement had one of those “Improvements” clauses, cl. 5.4(a), by which Lloyd agreed to transfer ownership of any improvements in the technology it developed to Lardken and would receive a non-exclusive licence back.

A third party, Ausra, applied for patents in the USA and Australia. Lloyd had notified Lardken about these applications, but had settled a dispute with Ausra on terms that Ausra assigned its rights in the patent applications to Lloyd. Lardken claimed that “Ausra’s” patent applications had been developed from confidential information about Lardken’s technology which, it was alleged, Ausra accessed at Lloyd’s facility. Lardken also claimed it was entitled to ownership of patent applications filed by one of Lloyd’s subsidiaries, Solfast.

Lloyd denied that any of this technology were improvements within the meaning of the licence agreement and, when Lardken refused to agree, referred the matter to arbitration.

Lardken argued that these disputes were not capable of determination by the arbitrator as a matter of public policy as only the Commissioner of Patents had authority under the Patents Act to grant patents or, subject to appeal to the Court, determine who was an entitled person under s 15 and s 32 and s 36.

Hammerschlag J held that the issue between the parties was a dispute about whether the Ausra or the Solfast technology fell within the terms of cl. 5.4(a). That was a dispute falling within the scope of the arbitration clause. The arbitrator’s decision would not, and could not, affect the Commissioner’s determination whether to grant the patent applications or not. The Commissioner’s powers under ss 15, 32 and 36, to determine entitlement, were not exclusive: questions of assignment for example were regularly determined in other fora. All the arbitrator’s decision would do would be to decide rights and obligations as between Lardken and Lloyd.

The liability to pay licence fees

Lloyd also sought the arbitrator’s ruling that it would not have to pay additional licence fees if:

  1. it itself constructed something using Lardken’s technology; or
  2. it sub-licensed one of its subsidiaries to construct something using Lardken’s technology.

Lardken argued the dispute about Lloyd’s potential liability to pay royalties in the future was not a ‘dispute’ capable of arbitration. There was, as yet, no “live issue” between the parties, it was really an attempt to seek an advisory opinion about a hypothetical eventuality.

Hammerschlag J also found that this was a dispute covered by the arbitration clause.

When Lloyd had written to Lardken stating its interpretation of the licence agreement, Lardken had responded disagreeing. Thus, at [101]:

There is thus clear disagreement between the parties on matters arising in connection with the Licensing Agreement. Each has claimed that the Licensing Agreement operates in a way which the other disputes; see Halki Shipping Corporation v Sopex Oils Ltd [1998] 1 WLR 726 at 757. See also the incisive discussion as to what constitutes a dispute in Tjong Very Sumito v Antig Investments at 747 and following, and Sutton et al, Russell on Arbitration , 23rd ed (2007) at [5-003].

Further, that fact that there was an element of futurity about the liability to pay did not render it purely abstract or hypothetical. Hammerschlag J accepted that purely hypothetical matters may not qualify as ‘disputes’, At [104]:

Although both of these disputes involve an element of futurity they are not purely abstract or hypothetical in the sense which makes them incapable of being the subject of determination. They concern whether certain prospective conduct will result in liability to pay fees under the Licensing Agreement (or put another way whether in the event of that conduct occurring the failure to pay would be a breach of contract). It was not suggested that the prospect that that conduct would occur was fanciful.

In reaching this conclusion, his Honour noted that declarations could be granted by the Court in similar situations:

98. In The Commonwealth v Sterling Nicholas Duty Free [1972] HCA 19; (1972) 126 CLR 297 at 305 Barwick CJ said:

The jurisdiction to make a declaratory order without consequential relief is a large and most useful jurisdiction. In my opinion, the present was an apt case for its exercise. The respondent undoubtedly desired and intended to do as he asked the Court to declare he lawfully could do. The matter, in my opinion, was in no sense hypothetical, but in any case not hypothetical in a sense relevant to the exercise of this jurisdiction. Of its nature, the jurisdiction includes the power to declare that conduct which has not yet taken place will not be in breach of a contract or a law. Indeed, it is that capacity which contributes enormously to the utility of the jurisdiction.

Hammerschlag J did note, however, it was a matter for the arbitrator’s discretion whether or not to make a determination on the issue.

The judgment doesn’t say how much it would cost to build one of these plant, but one might well think it makes sense for a party to be able to find out in advance what, if any, licence fee would be payable before it had committed to, or incurred, the expense of building the plant.

Larkden Pty Limited -v- Lloyd Energy Systems Pty Limited [2011] NSWSC 268

Lid dip: Steve White