In Rockefeller Technology Investments (Asia) VII v. Changzhou Sinotype Technology, Co., Ltd., a California Court of Appeal voided a $414 million arbitration judgment entered against Changzhou Sinotype on the grounds of improper service under the Hague Convention—despite the parties’ agreement to waive Hague Convention service requirements and US personal jurisdiction defenses.
Rockefeller Technology (an American investment partnership) and Changzhou Sinotype (a Chinese company) entered into a contract in 2008 in which Sinotype agreed to submit to “the jurisdiction of the Federal and State Courts in California” and to “the Judicial Arbitration & Mediation Service [JAMS] in Los Angeles for exclusive and final resolution” of all disputes with Rockefeller Technology. Both parties agreed to be served with process by three specific methods—FedEx, fax and email. These three service methods are not expressly authorized by the Hague Convention, which also prohibits serving parties in China without going through the Chinese Central Authority.
After a dispute arose, Rockefeller Technology submitted its claims against Sinotype to binding arbitration at JAMS. JAMS and Rockefeller Technology both sent arbitration notices and documents directly to Sinotype pursuant to the parties’ 2008 contract—via FedEx, fax and email. Sinotype did not appear and did not participate in the arbitration proceedings. After hearing and briefing, the arbitrator entered a $414 million award against Changzhou Sinotype.
California Trial Court Confirms Judgment
In 2014, Rockefeller Technology filed an action in the Los Angeles Superior Court to confirm its arbitration award. Rockefeller served Sinotype with court notices and pleadings in the manner that the parties agreed to in their contract (via FedEx, fax and email). Sinotype again failed to appear. In October 2014, the Los Angeles Superior Court entered judgment confirming Rockefeller Technology’s award. Rockefeller served the judgment on Sinotype by the same agreed-to methods.
In January 2016, after Rockefeller Technology attempted to execute the judgment against some of Sinotype’s assets in the United States, Sinotype filed a motion to set aside the judgment on the basis of improper service. Sinotype argued that the parties’ 2008 agreement violated the Hague Convention. The trial court rejected Sinotype’s arguments, finding that Rockefeller Technology and Sinotype agreed to waive the Hague Convention requirements and to serve and accept process by FedEx, fax and email. That court also found that Sinotype had actual notice of more than seven years of arbitration and state court proceedings but decided not to appear until judgment enforcement began.
California Appellate Court Reverses Confirmation
On appeal, the California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling on the basis that because Sinotype was not served with process in accordance with Hague Convention requirements, California courts did not have personal jurisdiction over Sinotype. The appellate court concluded that any attempt at waiver of service is invalid as contrary to the Hague Convention and contrary to China’s own laws, which require service of process to go through its Central Authority, despite the parties’ agreement allowing service of process via other means.
California Supreme Court Decision Pending
On July 11, 2018, Rockefeller Technology filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court. On September 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court granted Rockefeller Technology’s petition. The parties are to brief and argue the issue of whether private parties can contractually agree to legal service of process by methods not expressly authorized by the Hague Convention.
Waiver of Hague Convention service requirements and personal jurisdiction defenses in agreements between foreign parties is relatively common practice. This is an important case to watch for any companies entering into agreements that involve dispute resolution clauses with Chinese parties and Hague Convention waivers, especially where California courts might be involved in confirming or enforcing arbitration awards. This current precedent creates uncertainty regarding the validity of notice to Chinese parties in existing and future disputes where Hague requirements were waived. In these circumstances and until this uncertainty is resolved by the California Supreme Court, companies should consider complying with convention requirements even despite agreed-to waivers.