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  • Dhaval Bothra, Sonal Jain

Beyond the Invisible Handshake: A Global Look at the Scope of the “Group of Companies” Doctrine

[Dhaval and Sonal are students at Symbiosis Law School, Pune.]


The group of companies (GoC) doctrine stands as a legal principle allowing the extension of arbitration agreements to non-signatory entities within a corporate group. Recently, in Cox and Kings Limited v. SAP India Private Limited and Another (Cox and Kings), the Supreme Court of India affirmed the doctrine’s existence in arbitration while underscoring its inherently fact-specific nature. This decision, though, left lingering questions about the precise circumstances in which non-signatories can be bound by an arbitration agreement within a corporate structure. The court acknowledged implied consent, direct benefit, participation in arbitration proceedings without objection, instances of fraud, and other such conduct as potential factors in applying this doctrine. This blog focuses on the nuanced aspects of the application of the GoC doctrine, focusing on four distinct scenarios: single economic reality, agency and representation, piercing of corporate veil, and third-party beneficiary via cross-jurisdictional case law analysis.


Single Economic Reality


The recent Cox and Kings decision has emphasized the fact-specific nature of the GoC doctrine. While the presence of a single economic entity between a signatory and a non-signatory party is relevant, it alone is insufficient to bind the non-signatory to an arbitration agreement. A deeper investigation is crucial to determine whether the relationship and/or the underlying transaction are sufficiently interwoven to justify extending the agreement’s binding effect.


For instance, DHN Food Distributors Limited v. Tower Hamlets London Borough Council outlined the criteria for identifying a single economic entity, including the parent company’s complete ownership of subsidiary shares, control over actions, and interdependent actions. Expanding on this idea, the US First Circuit Court, in Sourcing Unlimited v. Asimco Technologies, applied equitable estoppel to compel arbitration between signatory and non-signatory parties. Despite Asimco International not being a party to the agreement, the court emphasized the interconnectedness of the dispute with the underlying contract.


In Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited v. Canara Bank and Others, the Supreme Court of India examined if CANFINA, a non-signatory subsidiary, was bound by an arbitration agreement between its parent company, Canara Bank, and MTNL. The court pinpointed three key factors: the non-signatory’s direct relationship with the signatory, shared subject matter, and the composite nature of the transaction. Emphasizing that the GoC doctrine could be invoked in the presence of a tight group structure with strong organizational and financial links, the court echoed the guidance provided by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in the origin case of Dow Chemical v. Isover Saint Gobain, among others.


In separate instances, the Madras High Court, in SEI Adhavan Power Private Limited v. Jinneng Clean Energy Tech Limited, invoked the GoC doctrine, incorporating non-signatories into arbitration based on their shared economic group, centralized control, common email IDs, premises, and participation in a joint project. Similarly, the Supreme Court of India reinforced the doctrine in Chloro Controls Private Limited v. Severn Trent Water Purification, permitting non-signatories in a joint venture to invoke the arbitration clause in a shareholders’ agreement.


In January 2024, in Opuskart Enterprises v. Kaushal Kishore Tyagi, the Delhi High Court, relying on Cox and Kings, affirmed that the broad arbitration clause included all business disputes among the partners. This extends to disputes involving their firm and company, allowing the inclusion of non-signatory affiliates as parties in the arbitration agreement through mutual intention.


Therefore, the application of the GoC doctrine involves a nuanced analysis of factors such as direct relationships, commonality of subject matter, the scope of the arbitration agreement, and a composite transaction nature, among multiple others. This illustrates that the recognition of a single economic reality in terms of the GoC doctrine is a complex determination requiring careful examination of specific conditions and circumstances.


Agency and Representation


Agency and representation is one of the ways in which a non-signatory to an arbitration agreement signed by an affiliated company may be bound by it. This determination relies on the actions of the signatory company, extending beyond its capacity to encompass other affiliated entities. The impact reverberates not only within the immediate signatory relationship but permeates through involved companies and even those with directors not directly engaged in the agreement.


Fiona Trust & Holding Corporation v. Privalov stressed upon the agreement’s consensual nature and the separability principle. While not directly invoking the GoC doctrine, the court focused on parties’ intentions and the need for quick dispute resolution. The separability principle was key in stating that the challenges to the main contract did not nullify the arbitration agreement. Therefore, the court allowed for the extension of arbitration within a corporate group for agency and representation, post considering the parties’ intentions and the separability principle.


On similar lines, in French Law, the “mandat apparent” principle legally binds a principal to the actions of an individual, even without explicit authority. It operates when both parties create a belief in the existence of such authority among bona fide third parties. In arbitration agreements, this principle implies authority, binding the principal even without direct agreement. For instance, ICC Case Number 5730 applied this approach to address analogous issues.


Therefore, for the establishment of agency relationships and the extension of arbitration agreements under agency principles, both courts and arbitral tribunals scrutinize the relationships between parties. Factors include the degree of control exerted, the circumstances suggesting one company acts on behalf of another, and the requirements for the form of an agent’s power to sign an arbitration agreement.


Piercing of Corporate Veil


In legal terms, merely belonging to the same group or having a shared owner is not sufficient to pierce the corporate veil. Exceptions arise when a company or individual plays a pivotal role in contracts, prompting a more in-depth examination. The ICC Case Number 5721 underscores that piercing the corporate veil is rare, reserved for situations where intentional confusion is created by the group or majority shareholder.


A US court precedent, Passalacqua Builders v. Resnick Developers South, adds grounds for piercing the corporate veil, such as common officers, non-arm’s-length dealings, and lack of separate profit centers. ARW Exploration Corp. v. Aguirre further specifies that this action is justified when a corporation acts as the “alter ego” under the arbitration agreement. In Bridas SAPIC v. Government of Turkmenistan, the Fifth Circuit Court reversed a district court decision on an arbitral award against a foreign government. It held that intentionally draining a subsidiary to evade creditors, causing undercapitalization, is a classic reason to pierce the corporate veil.


In the Indian scenario, a recent Delhi High Court judgment in Shapoorji Pallonji and Company Private Limited v. Rattan India Power Limited applied the GoC doctrine alongside principles of alter ego and lifting of the corporate veil. The court compelled arbitration by treating a wholly-owned subsidiary, Elena, as an extended division of its parent company, Indiabulls, considering it an alter ego engaged solely in executing projects for Indiabulls. The court’s decision was grounded in the comprehensive control exercised by Indiabulls over Elena, underscoring that piercing the corporate veil becomes justifiable when a subsidiary is essentially an alter ego of its parent company. This case exemplifies how the GoC doctrine may be invoked through piercing the corporate veil, particularly when corporate structures are manipulated to achieve specific objectives.


Third-Party Beneficiary


Arbitration agreements can expressly include third-party beneficiaries, challenging the traditional principle of privity of contracts. In notable cases, such as JP Morgan Chase & Co. v. Conegie in the US, the explicit naming of a non-signatory in the contract compelled them to arbitrate. The significance of such cases underscores the power of explicit provisions in the agreement.


The ICC echoes this principle, asserting that the inclusion of third-party beneficiaries depends on the parties’ intent. ICC Case Number 9839 illustrated that mere inclusion in the contract is insufficient without evidence of an intentional and direct benefit for the third party.


In essence, enforcing arbitration for third-party beneficiaries demands specific conditions: an explicit contract provision outlining benefits, a clear intention for such benefits, and an arbitration clause permitting extension to third parties. Merely being a beneficiary is not enough; the crux lies in the deliberate inclusion and intent within the agreement.


Final Words


Despite its limited application, the GoC doctrine remains a potent tool in certain scenarios. However, its recent expansion, maybe beyond its initial purpose of binding non-signatories to arbitration, raises concerns about its potential to undermine consent, the cornerstone of arbitration.


While the Cox and Kings’ judgment has attempted to clarify and situate the GoC doctrine within Indian arbitration law, it leaves unanswered questions regarding the specific circumstances under which it can be invoked. Although the Supreme Court of India has clarified the doctrine while emphasizing its distinct purpose from corporate law tools like piercing the corporate veil, the blurred lines between these concepts further complicate the issue. While some jurisdictions apply the GoC doctrine in conjunction with these tools, others use them directly. Regardless, the GoC doctrine’s application extends beyond these tools and encompasses specific scenarios where non-signatories are bound by arbitration agreements.


To ensure the fair and just application of the GoC doctrine, clear guidance is required. Simply concluding that it should be applied on a fact-specific basis might not be sufficient [para 98]. Elaborating on what these facts might look like with greater clarity and specificity will be crucial in protecting the integrity of arbitration and upholding the principle of consent. Ultimately, the GoC doctrine should be a shield, not a sword. Its use should be limited to genuinely exceptional cases where compelling arguments demonstrate the necessity of binding non-signatories to arbitration agreements. This approach will ensure that the GoC doctrine remains a valuable tool for resolving disputes while safeguarding the fundamental principles of arbitration.

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