STRINE, Vice Chancellor.
The plaintiffs — Kostas Douzinas, Nancy Douzinas, and Nautical Technology Corporation (the "Douzinases") — are minority members of nominal defendant ABS Nautical Systems, LLC ("Nautical Systems"). The Douzinases accuse the managing member of Nautical Systems, defendant ABS InfoLink, Inc. ("ABS InfoLink"), of breaching fiduciary duties it allegedly owed to Nautical Systems and its members. The Douzinases also plead aiding and abetting, conspiracy, and unjust enrichment claims against affiliates of ABS InfoLink, defendants American Bureau of Shipping, Inc. and ABS Group of Companies, Inc. (the "ABS Affiliates"). All of the claims against the ABS Affiliates arise from the same pattern of behavior alleged against ABS InfoLink.
In their complaint, the Douzinases allege that Nautical Systems was formed by ABS InfoLink and themselves to combine in one entity their respective software products, which were complementary and designed to aid operators of ocean-going vessels in managing their operations. Nautical Systems, according to the Douzinases, was to be the venture through which the combined potential of the members' formerly separate software products would be exploited for their ratable benefit. To that end, the Douzinases allege that they contributed their software to Nautical Systems, as did ABS InfoLink. In exchange, the Douzinases were given a 25% interest in Nautical Systems, and ABS InfoLink obtained a 75% interest.
Once Nautical Systems was formed, ABS InfoLink was named as the member that would manage the entity on a day-to-day basis. In the complaint, the Douzinases allege that ABS InfoLink injured Nautical Systems by covertly transferring the software that was to belong to Nautical Systems to the ABS Affiliates. After that was done, the ABS Affiliates are alleged to have distributed the software "at no charge to their customers in an effort to secure business for themselves, with no
This matter is now before me because ABS InfoLink and the ABS Affiliates argue that the Douzinases' claims must be arbitrated, in accordance with § 10.01 of the Nautical Systems LLC Agreement that states:
In so arguing, the defendants rely heavily on the Supreme Court's decision in Elf Atochem North America, Inc. v. Jaffari.
The Douzinases disagree, contending that their claims against ABS InfoLink involve claims for breach of fiduciary duty that do not require reference to the LLC Agreement for determination and are not subject to arbitration. As a result, they claim that the teaching of Parfi Holding AB v. Mirror Image Internet, Inc.
One unusual factor in resolving this dispute, fortunately, does not create the difficulty that it might have. Section 11.10 of the LLC Agreement states "[e]xcept to the extent any provision hereof is mandatorily required to be governed by the [Delaware Limited Liability Company Act], this agreement is governed by and shall be construed in accordance with the law of the state of Texas...." This creates the odd situation where parties to an LLC domiciled in Delaware chose to have their LLC Agreement governed by another state's law, except when the Delaware LLC Act requires the application of Delaware law. Our state respects choice of law provisions when the law chosen has a material relationship to the matter at issue, a requirement that is satisfied here because Nautical Systems operated out of Texas.
Fortunately for me, the parties agree that there is no material difference between Texas and Delaware law regarding the issues before me. Like Delaware, Texas law favors arbitration and enforces
Having set forth the approach I am taking, I will now set forth the reasons I reject the Douzinases' arguments. For starters, this case is much more like Elf Atochem than Parfi. In Elf Atochem, the Supreme Court clearly indicated that a broad arbitration provision in an LLC Agreement could encompass breach of fiduciary duties claims raised by a member.
As another distinction, Parfi addressed fiduciary duty claims asserted in the corporate, rather than alternative entity, context. This is important because alternative entity statutes, such as Delaware's Limited Liability Company and Limited Partnership Acts, permit the contracting parties to expand or restrict "the member's or manager's or other person's duties [including fiduciary duties] and liabilities... in a limited liability company agreement."
For these reasons, the Supreme Court explicitly distinguished in Parfi between the case before it, involving a separate underwriting agreement not binding on all the stockholders of the corporation, and the situation in Elf Atochem. As summarized by Parfi itself, the LLC agreement in Elf Atochem required "parties to submit purported fiduciary duty claims to arbitration since the series of agreements created a system setting for[th] the governance and operation of the parties' joint venture."
As the various ABS defendants contend, the Nautical Systems LLC Agreement directly implicates this reasoning, as it creates the governance system for the LLC and establishes the framework governing all of the members' rights and duties towards one another. That is, the Nautical Systems' LLC Agreement reflects an exercise in contractual freedom of the kind that Elf Atochem recognized as central to the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act, which permits the contractual elimination of default principles of fiduciary duty.
In § 10.01 of Nautical Systems's LLC Agreement, the parties agreed not only to arbitrate claims "arising under" that Agreement but also claims "related to" that Agreement "whether arising in contract, tort or otherwise, and whether arising at law or in equity." That broad arbitration provision must be honored by enforcement.
The Douzinases attempt to argue that the clause only covers claims arising under the LLC Agreement, but that reads the broad term "related to" out of the contract, as well as the broad reference to claims arising in "contract, tort or otherwise" or arising in "equity."
To briefly show why, it is important to recognize that the Douzinases' contention that ABS InfoLink is being sued solely as a "manager" and not as a "member" of the LLC is just that — a contention — and not an obviously true statement. Although it is correct that ABS InfoLink was named as the manager of the LLC, this does not necessarily mean that the provisions of the LLC Agreement dealing with members are irrelevant. Because ABS InfoLink is sued as a result of its actions as manager, the Douzinases claim that the provision of the LLC Agreement stating that the relation among members is "strictly contractual
To resolve whether that is correct clearly requires consideration of the LLC Agreement's other terms. These include explicit provisions indicating that:
Stated summarily, by its own plain terms, the LLC Agreement is managed by its Members through a Board, and as to certain delegated tasks, through the Member, ABS InfoLink, designated as Manager. For that reason, the Douzinases' blithe contention that the provisions of the LLC Agreement limiting the duties of Members have no application to its claims against ABS InfoLink is unconvincing. At the very least, the provisions of the LLC Agreement must be considered and interpreted carefully in addressing the Douzinases' claims.
One can see why by citing other provisions of the LLC Agreement that are clearly implicated by the Douzinases' claims. For example, the LLC Agreement has detailed provisions regarding the handling of confidential information, see § 3.06, and the ability of Members to engage in competition, see § 6.05. These provisions are directly implicated by the Douzinases' serious accusations that ABS InfoLink transferred Nautical Systems's intellectual property to the ABS Affiliates, thereby directly undercutting Nautical Systems's own competitive position. Indeed, § 6.05 specifically states "the Members and their Affiliates shall be prohibited from competing with the Company in the licensing of marine vessel management systems software or ... other services with respect to the marine management systems software owned or licensed by the Company; provided, the preceding provision shall not apply to or constitute any restriction on American Bureau of Shipping, a New York Corporation." Of course, the Douzinases bring claims against Affiliates of ABS InfoLink — including defendant American Bureau of Shipping which expressly is not restricted by § 6.05 — that involve the alleged misuse of Nautical Systems's software to benefit the ABS family of companies, to Nautical Systems's detriment.
By any measure, the Nautical Systems LLC Agreement creates a "system setting for[th] the governance and operation of the parties' joint venture."
For the foregoing reasons, the ABS defendants are entitled to an order compelling the Douzinases to arbitrate their claims in accordance with the Nautical Systems LLC Agreement. The parties shall confer and submit an implementing final judgment within five days.