An award-holder of an arbitral proceeding is naturally under the impression that she has a rightful claim to the amounts having been arbitrated upon and awarded to her. However, what if, before the award has actually been paid out, the opposite contestant to the arbitration (known in technical legal language as ‘award-debtor’) goes into insolvency? Does the award-holder have any rights to continue to claim the amount due to it (as decided under arbitrations)? What happens if a resolution plan is accepted by the NCLT, and the award-debtor had never filed its claim before the Resolution Professional (being under the impression that the arbitral award being enforceable in a Court of law need not be claimed before an RP)?
An arbitral award holder is usually considered to be an ‘Operational Creditor’ under the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code of India (“IBC”).
On May 7, 2021, the Calcutta High Court answered these questions. Being an important facet impacting both Insolvency and the Arbitration laws, we have brought forward the nuances via this article.
Relevant facts leading to the judgment dated May 7, 2021 being passed by the Calcutta High Court
Sirpur Paper Mills Limited (“Petitioner”) was an award debtor in an arbitration proceeding with I.K. Merchants Pvt. Ltd. (“Respondent”). The Petitioner challenged the said award on October 31, 2008 under section 34 of the Arbitration & Conciliation Act, 1996 (“A&C Act”) before the Calcutta High Court. The impugned award was automatically stayed upon filing of the application under section 34 of the 1996 Act as it stood prior to amendment of 2016, which came into effect from October 23, 2015.
During the pendency of section 34 application, an application for commencement of corporate insolvency resolution process (“CIRP”) came to be filed against the Petitioner before the jurisdictional NCLT in the year 2017. Subsequently, CIRP was admitted on September 18, 2017 and a RP was appointed on the same day. RP made the public announcement on September 25, 2017 inviting claims from the creditors of the Petitioner company. The Respondent i.e. the award holder did not submit its claim with RP within the time granted under the public announcement. Pursuant to collation of claims received from various creditors, RP invited resolution plans from eligible resolution applicants, which came to be finally approved by NCLT on July 19, 2018. This order of the NCLT came to be further challenged before the appellate tribunal in multiple proceedings, and was only later confirmed by the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, Delhi.
In the midst of the above, the Petitioner prayed before the Calcutta High Court that the pending section 34 application should not be kept in abeyance as IBC proceedings have been invoked and are in the process of completion. To this, the Court vide its order dated January 10, 2020 held that CIRP cannot be used to defeat a dispute which existed prior to initiation of the CIRP and rejected the Petitioner’s prayer. It further held that the Respondent (the award-holder) could not have filed a claim before the NCLT since there was no final or adjudicated claim on the date of initiation of the CIRP against the Petitioner (the award-debtor).
With the resolution plan having been confirmed by the NCLAT, the successful resolution applicant commenced the process of taking over the Petitioner company as per the provisions of IBC.
The Petitioner again approached the Court praying that the present proceeding under section 34 of the A&C Act, has become infructuous by reason of its management (the award-debtor) being taken over by a new entity following the approval of a resolution plan by NCLT under IBC.
Petitioner relied on the section 31 of IBC to contend that an approved resolution plan is binding on the corporate debtor and its employees, members and other stakeholders. In this regard, reliance was place on a decision of the Supreme Court in Committee of Creditors of Essar Steel India Limited vs. Satish Kumar Gupta. It was further contended that a successful resolution applicant cannot be faced with undecided claims after the resolution plan has been accepted.
The Petitioner also argued that its debts stand extinguished except to the extent of the debts which have been taken over by the resolution applicant under the approved resolution plan.
Respondent raised the issue of res judicata by highlighting that the same arguments were made by the Petitioner earlier as well on two occasions, which came to be decided by the court, and such orders were not under challenge.
It submitted that as per the law prevailing prior to 2016 amendment to the A&C Act. upon filing of the application under section 34 of the A&C Act in October 2008, the award was automatically stayed and the Respondent could not submit its claim under IBC.
Court’s observation & findings
On the issue of res judicata
The Court observed that Supreme Court’s decision in Essar and more recently in Edelweiss, constitutes a significant and subsequent development of the law in relation to the fate of existing claims during and after CIRP. This would clearly constitute a sufficient reason for the Court to revisit its earlier judgment of January 10, 2020. In Essar and in Edelweiss, the Supreme Court had held that once a resolution plan is approved, a creditor cannot initiate proceedings for recovery of claims which are not part such resolution plan. Basis the same, the Court rejected the Respondent’s argument on res judicata by observing the following:
“12. A decision-making process must be attuned to a dynamic legal landscape shaped by legislative intervention and judicial pronouncements. The most predictable aspect of law is its constant evolution. It would hence be judicial short-sightedness, even stubbornness, to hold on to a view when the law, in the meantime, has transformed into a different avatar.”
In view of the aforesaid, the Court recorded that question of maintainability of the application under Section 34 of the A&C Act can be considered at any point of time on the legal aspect and particularly on the pronouncement of a decision relevant to the matter.
Law laid down by Supreme Court in Essar
In the aforesaid decision, the Supreme Court had considered questions relating to the role of resolution applicants, RPs and committee of creditors constituted under IBC as well as the jurisdiction of NCLT and the NCLAT with regard to resolution plans that have been approved by the Committee of Creditors.
The view of the Supreme Court was that the successful resolution applicant who takes over the business of the corporate debtor must start running the business of the corporate debtor on a “fresh slate”. This was reiterated in the Edelweiss, where the Supreme Court while considering section 31 of IBC, held that once the Resolution Plan is approved by the NCLT, it shall be binding on the corporate debtor and its employees, members etc. Since revival of the corporate debtor is one of the dominant purposes of IBC, the Supreme Court was of the view that any debt which does not form a part of the approved Resolution Plan shall stand extinguished and no person will be entitled to initiate or continue any proceeding in respect of such claim.
Whether the Respondent could have lodged and pursued its claim before the NCLT pending section 34 proceedings
The Respondent had contended that there was no scope for the it to approach NCLT since the impugned award was automatically stayed upon filing of the application under section 34 of the 1996 Act as it stood prior to amendment of 2016, which came into effect from 23rd October, 2015.
In this regard, the Court cited the law laid down by the Board of Control for Cricket in India vs. Kochi Cricket Private Limited, to observe that Section 34 applications which were pending at the time of the judgment in Kochi Cricket would also be governed by the new section 36 of the A&C Act, as amended. Hence, the Respondent was not rendered immobile in pursuing its claim under IBC by virtue of pendency of section 34 application.
It observed that the facts of the case would show that the Respondent had ample opportunity to approach NCLT for appropriate relief, and hence was under an obligation to take active steps under IBC instead of waiting for adjudication of section 34 application under the A&C Act.
The Court followed the law as crystallised by the Supreme Court in Essar and Edelweiss to hold that pre-existing and undecided claims which have not featured in the collation of claims by RP shall be treated as extinguished upon approval of the resolution plan under section 31 of IBC. In relation to the same, the Court observed as under:
“This can be seen as a necessary and an inevitable fallout of the IBC in order to prevent, in the words of the Supreme Court, a “hydra head popping up” and rendering uncertain the running of the business of a corporate debtor by a successful resolution applicant. In essence, an operational creditor who fails to lodge a claim in the CIRP literally missed boarding the claims-bus for chasing the fruits of an Award even where a challenge to the Award is pending in a Civil Court.”
In view of the aforesaid discussions, the Court ordered the pending application under section 34 of the A&C Act to be rendered infructuous upon approval of resolution plan under section 31 of IBC.
As is evident from facts of the present case, the Petitioner company as a corporate debtor was successfully revived by way of CIRP and was handed over to another entity as a ‘going concern’. Taking note of the same, the Court upheld the principle imbibed under IBC that the prime objective of CIRP is revival of the corporate debtor and a successful resolution applicant should not be saddled with legacy claims or debts. This holds true in view of the new law relating to challenge to arbitral awards, where the award is not automatically stayed upon filing of section 34 application, it would be advisable for the award holders to file their claims with RP within stipulated time. The law relating to challenge to an arbitral award (as it stands today) stipulates that the court may only grant stay upon filing of a separate application. In this regard, the court has the discretion to fasten a condition while granting stay of an award or grant an unconditional stay. In such a case, the award holder would be constrained to file its claim before RP. Accordingly, the claims shall stand extinguished where either the claims have not been submitted to RP or the same have been held to be non-admissible before resolution plan is approved.
However, where the CIRP fails and order for liquidation of the corporate debtor is passed, the principle that corporate debtor should have a ‘fresh start’ as is in the case of successful resolution, may not hold true. This is because of the fact that in liquidation, the assets of corporate debtor are monetised in order to meet the outstanding claims of creditors and business of the corporate debtor is not transferred as a ‘going concern’. Hence, the fate of pending challenge to arbitral awards as claim(s) against a company under liquidation under IBC remains to be seen.
Contributed by Manish Parmar. Manish can be reached at email@example.com.
Views are personal.
 Sirpur Paper Mills Limited vs. I.K. Merchants Pvt. Ltd.; A.P. 550 of 2008
 2020) 8 SCC 531
 Cases relied on – Gaurav Dalmia vs. Reserve Bank of India & Ors.; 2020 SCC Online Cal 668, Axis Bank Limited vs. Gaurav Dalmia MANU/WB/0739/2020; Sumitra Devi Shah & Ors. vs. Tata Steel BSL Limited; 2021 SCC Online Cal 114
 Relied on Board of Control for Cricket in India vs. Kochi Cricket Private Limited; (2018) 6 SCC 287 and Government of India vs. Vedanta Limited (Formerly Cairn India Limited); (2020) 10 SCC 1 for the proposition that amendments will only have prospective application.
 Ghanshyam Mishra and Sons Private Limited vs. Edelweiss Asset Reconstruction Company Limited; 2021 SCC OnLine SC 313
 (2018) 6 SCC 287