By Shana A. Elberg, Christine A. Okike, & Jennifer Permesly (Skadden)
The economic hardships brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted companies globally, leading many to consider both in-court and out-of-court restructurings. This trend will likely continue as the long-term effects of COVID-19 play out, and companies with arbitration clauses in their commercial agreements may wish to consider the impact of insolvency on their options for pursuing pending or future arbitrations. Under bankruptcy law, the initiation of insolvency proceedings results in an automatic stay of all civil proceedings brought against the debtor, including claims brought in arbitration. An arbitration counterparty may ask a bankruptcy court to lift the stay, which the court is permitted to do under the Bankruptcy Code “for cause.” The decision to lift the stay is ultimately a matter of the bankruptcy court’s discretion, though federal circuit courts have held that a stay of an arbitration involving a noncore matter generally must be lifted. The balance is particularly weighted in favor of arbitration in the international context. Although the stay of arbitration is intended to apply extraterritorially, it is not always clear that arbitration tribunals seated outside the US, or counterparties located outside the US and not subject to the bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction, will consider themselves bound by the stay. Companies considering their options for pursuing cross-border arbitrations against an insolvent debtor must therefore consider the relevant laws in at least three regimes: the seat of the arbitration, the place in which the debtor has declared insolvency and any countries in which enforcement of the award may ultimately be sought.
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