Tuesday, December 12, 2017

White Oak Power Constructors v. Alstom Power, Inc. (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Filed: November 7, 2017

Opinion by: Catherine C. Blake, United States District Judge

Holding: Tort claims based on conduct prior to the execution of a contract are not outside the scope of the agreed to forum selection clauses and that enforcing said clauses, which refer to “any legal action” related to the agreement.

Facts: In 2013, Defendant, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (“Old Dominion”) entered into an Equipment Purchase Agreement (“Alstom Agreement”) with Defendant Alstrom Power, Inc. (“Alstrom”) for three generators for use in the Wildcat Point Generation Facility under development in Rising Sun, Maryland (“the Plant”). In 2014, Old Dominion entered into an Engineer, Procure and Construct Contract (“White Oak Agreement”) with Plaintiff, White Oak Power Constructors (“White Oak”) to construct the Plant and prepare it for operation. All three parties also signed an Assignment, Assumption, and Consent Agreement (“Assignment Agreement”) assigning certain of Old Dominion’s rights and responsibilities from the Alstrom Agreement to White Oak.

The Alstrom Agreement forum selection clause states:

 “Any legal action with respect to this Agreement shall exclusively be brought in the state courts of Virginia located in Henrico County, Virginia or in the United States District Court for the Easter District of Virginia located in Richmond, Virginia…each of the parties irrevocably waives any objection…further irrevocably waives and agrees not to plead or claim in any such court that any action or proceeding brought in any such court has been brought in an inconvenient forum.”       

The Assignment Agreement contains a substantively identical forum-selection provision. In addition, the White Oak Agreement forum selection clause states:

“Both parties hereto agree…to submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia located in Richmond, Virginia, in any litigation between the parties or, if the federal court lacks jurisdiction, the state courts of the Commonwealth of Virginia located in Henrico County, Virginia…contractor hereby waives any objection that it may now or hereafter to the venue of any such suit or any such court or that such suit is brought in an inconvenient forum.”

Plaintiff argued that its tort claims were outside the scope of the forum selection clauses and, even if the tort claims are within the scope of the forum selection clauses, enforcing the clauses would be unreasonable. The court denied all of Plaintiff’s arguments.

Analysis: The court first acknowledged the Supreme Court’s holding that: “When the parties have agreed to a valid forum-selection clause, a district court should ordinarily transfer the case to the forum specified in that clause. Only under extraordinary circumstances unrelated to the convenience of the parties should a §1404(a) motion be denied.” Plaintiff made the following arguments against enforcement of the forum selection clauses, and for the following reasons, the court denied each argument in turn:

(1)  Plaintiff’s tort claims were outside the scope of the forum selection clauses.

The court relied on the language of the Agreements to dismiss this claim, citing, “the Alstrom Agreement referred to ‘any legal action or proceeding with respect to this agreement’ and ‘actions of proceedings arising out of or in connection with this agreement.’ Both of these clauses therefore encompass pre-execution conduct of the parties related to the bidding on and negotiation of the agreements, including the alleged fraud in the inducement.”

(2)  Enforcing the clauses would be unreasonable.

The court cited the fourth circuit, explaining, “a forum selection clause may be found unreasonable if: (i) its formation was induced by fraud or overreaching; (ii) the complaining party will for all practical purposes be deprived of his day in court because of the grave inconvenience or unfairness of the selected forum; (iii) the fundamental unfairness of the chosen law may deprive the plaintiff of a remedy; or (iv) its enforcement would contravene a strong public policy of the forum state.”
The court found none of the above circumstances present, explaining, “[Plaintiff] has not advanced any facts to show that the forum selection clause specifically was obtained by fraud or overreaching…[and Plaintiff] offered no evidence that it will be gravely inconvenient or that it would be unfair to litigate this case in the forum state to which it agreed.” Similarly, there was no discussion of contravening a strong public policy by enforcing the clause. The court concluded, “allowing [Plaintiff] to escape its obligations under the forum selection clause…would be permitting forum shopping.”

(3)  Plaintiff did not bargain for the forum selection clause in the Alstrom Application.

The court quickly dismissed this final argument, explaining, “[Plaintiff] knew it would be subject to assignment of the Alstrom Agreement when it entered in the White Oak Agreement and the Assignment Agreement…[Plaintiff] could have bargained for a different forum selection clause. Instead, it agreed to inclusion of an identical clause in the Assignment Agreement. Further, the forum selection clause in the White Oak Agreement is even broader than that in the Alstrom Agreement.”

The opinion is available in PDF.

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