Second Circuit Confirms Arbitration Awards That Are (Literally) Out of This World

Arbitration over whether a South Korean company or a Bermuda company headquartered in Hong Kong owns a geostationary satellite in light of an order from a South Korean regulatory agency can be complicated. The Second Circuit recently affirmed a decision confirming an arbitration award adjudicating ownership of the satellite in question and awarding damages related to a party’s failure to obtain regulatory approvals necessary to complete the sale over claims that the arbitration panel exceeded its power, disregarded the law, and violated public policy.

KT Corp., a Korean company, agreed to sell a satellite to ABS Holdings Ltd., a Bermuda company headquartered in Hong Kong. The companies signed a purchase agreement to convey the title to the satellite and an operations agreement under which KT agreed to operate the satellite on behalf of ABS. Both agreements contained New York choice-of-law provisions and mandatory arbitration clauses. The purchase agreement required KT to obtain and maintain all necessary licenses and authorizations for the sale and the continued operation of the satellite.

The sale was completed and title to the satellite was transferred.

Nearly two years later, a South Korean regulatory agency issued an order declaring the purchase agreement null and void because KT had failed to obtain a required export permit. The agency canceled KT’s permission to use certain frequencies to operate the satellite.

KT and ABS arbitrated who held title to the satellite and whether KT had violated the purchase agreement before a panel of the International Chamber of Commerce. In two awards, the panel concluded that ABS held title to the satellite because title had lawfully passed when the conditions precedent to the purchase agreement were completed when there was no requirement that KT obtain an export permit. And even if that was not the case, the panel concluded, the regulatory order had no effect because it was issued retroactively without notice to the parties in violation of New York law, and KT breached its obligations by failing to obtain all the approvals necessary for the continued operation of the satellite (even though an export permit may not have been required for the sale of the satellite, one was necessary to maintain the satellite’s operations).

KT petitioned the Southern District of New York to vacate the award, and ABS petitioned the court to confirm it. The district court granted ABS’ petition and confirmed the panel’s award.

The Second Circuit affirmed. KT argued that the panel had exceeded its authority and that the award disregarded the law and violated public policy. KT claimed that the panel’s conclusion that the regulatory order was without effect violated due process principles. The court disagreed, noting that KT had not challenged the order, its counsel had questioned its validity, and the panel did not rest on the validity of the order; the panel referenced the propriety of the order as an alternate basis for its primary conclusion that title to the satellite properly changed hands. The court also rejected KT’s argument that the panel had disregarded New York contract law. Regarding public policy, although the court recognized that it is the public policy of the United States to enforce foreign judgments that are not repugnant to U.S. policy, it was unclear whether that public policy extended to foreign regulatory orders, and it was not even clear that the regulatory order in this case was enforceable under South Korean law according to KT’s expert.

KT Corp. v. ABS Holdings, Ltd., No. 18-2300 (2d Cir. Sept. 12, 2019).