A recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision must be read by anyone interested in the latest iteration of Delaware law concerning when a non-signatory may be bound by a forum selection clause in an agreement. In Florida Chemical Company, LLC v. Flotek Industries, Inc., C.A. No. 2021-0288-JTL (Del. Ch. Aug. 17, 2021), the court provides the most thorough analysis of the titular topic that this reader is aware of, with scholarly insights and copious citations that explain the theoretical underpinnings that support a decision to bind a non-signatory to a forum selection clause, and the prerequisites for doing so.
The court granted an anti-suit injunction to prevent litigation from proceeding in Texas that was contrary to the forum selection clause to which the court found both a parent corporation and its wholly-owned subsidiary to be bound, based on the extensive reasoning provided in this opinion.
The issue presented in this decision was whether a non-signatory can be bound to a forum selection clause based on equitable estoppel or promissory estoppel. The court needed to determine whether the Flotek Sub was bound by the agreement signed by the Flotek Parent company before deciding if a particular issue was covered by the forum selection clause. The court conducted a claim-by-claim analysis to determine if the claims filed in another forum were covered by the forum selection clause at issue.
The Flotek Parent in this case was a party to a Purchase Agreement with a Delaware forum selection clause. But the Flotek Subsidiary involved in this case was not a party to that agreement. Rather, the Flotek Sub was only a party to a separate Supply Agreement–that was referred to in the Purchase Agreement as an exhibit. The Purchase Agreement’s Delaware forum selection provision covered disputes related to other agreements such as the Supply Agreement. The supply agreement did not contain a forum selection provision.
• It’s always useful to be reminded of the well-worn prerequisites for a preliminary injunction which the court provides at page 12.
• A reminder of basic Delaware contract interpretation principles is provided at pages 14-15.
• The court observes a truism of Delaware contract law that when more than one agreement is part of a unitary transaction, and when one contract is referred to in another, they are all interpreted as one contract. See Slip op. at 17-18. However, the court explained that this principle alone would not apply to require the claims of the Flotek Sub to be prosecuted in Delaware. See Slip op. at 32.
• The court restated a three-part test for determining when a non-signatory would be bound by a forum selection clause. See Slip op. at 33-48. The court modified the three-part test announced in the Chancery decision in Capital Group, 2004 WL 2521295, at *5. The first two parts of the test are as follows:
(i) the agreement contains a valid forum selection provision;
(ii) the non-signatory has a sufficiently close relationship to the agreement, either as an intended third-party beneficiary under the agreement or under principles of estoppel (such as equitable estoppel or promissory estoppel).
• The third element of the test described in the Capital Group case was the subject of extensive analysis and modification in this opinion.
• The court discussed the principles of estoppel that would bind a non-signatory to a forum selection clause: (i) a non-signatory accepted a direct benefit from the agreement; or (ii) a non-signatory had a close relationship to the agreement; a signatory to the agreement controlled the non-signatory; and the circumstances established that the signatory agreed to the forum selection provision on behalf of its controlled affiliate. Slip op. at 34. See also footnote 5. The court described the direct-benefit test as resting on principles of equitable estoppel, and the foreseeability test as introducing a measure of promissory estoppel. The court discussed at great length both the direct-benefit test and the foreseeability test. See Slip op. at 35-39.
• The third element in the Capital Group test, which the court modified, included the “same-agreement rule” that limited when a non-signatory would be bound, but that the Court of Chancery in this case decided not to follow.
• Among the extensive reasons given for not following that “same-agreement rule” in the third element of the Capital Group test are the following:
“That outcome [if the same-agreement rule applied] runs contrary to the underlying principles of estoppel that lead to the forum selection provision binding the non-signatory. When a non-signatory accepts a direct benefit under an agreement, principles of equitable estoppel demand that the non-signatory accept the burdens associated with that agreement, including a forum selection provision.”
Slip op. at 44.
• As applied to the facts of this case, the principles of estoppel called for enforcing the Delaware forum provision against the Flotek Sub. The Flotek Parent promised to litigate all claims arising out of or relating to the Supply Agreement in Delaware through the Delaware forum provision in the Purchase Agreement which encompassed related agreements among those claims that were within the forum selection provision. If the same-agreement rule were applied, it would permit the Flotek Parent to escape that promise.
• This decision interpreted the third element of the Capital Group test as asking whether the claims at issue fall within the plain language of a forum selection provision.
• This decision conducted a claim-by-claim analysis of the causes of action in a suit filed in Texas to determine whether they fell within the Delaware forum provision for purposes of an anti-suit injunction against the Flotek Parent. The court’s extensive reasoning explained why the Delaware forum selection provision also binds the Flotek Sub to the same degree as the Flotek Parent.
• The court’s holding also is based on the reasoning that it would allow parties to “enter into overarching forum selection provisions in a primary agreement without requiring that every controlled affiliate become a party to that agreement.” The court further reasoned that the approach announced in this decision also promotes freedom of contract by enabling a controller to enter into an overarching forum selection provision and avoids the need for separate provisions in each agreement or the potentially cumbersome solution of having every controlled affiliate become a party to a primary agreement.