Monday, October 16, 2017
Take That! Outstanding Contractual Balance, Not Just Profits, Due in Case of Asserted Commercial Impracticability
In Hemlock Semiconductor Operations, LLC v. Solarworld Industries Sachsen GmbH, 867 F.3d 692 (Sixth Cir. 2017), Hemlock contracted to provide Sachsen in Germany set quantities of polysilicon at fixed prices between 2006 and 2019. The market price at the time was well above the price agreed upon between these parties, but plummeted several years later when the Chinese government began subsidizing its national production of polysilicon.
When Sachsen refused to pay the original contractual amount for 2012, Hemlock brought suit for breach of contract. Sachsen defended itself claiming that the Chinese government (1) illegally subsidized its national production of polysilicon and dumped massive quantities of the product onto the market, causing the price of polysilicon to fall; and (2) committed acts of “criminal industrial espionage” against Sachsen's U.S.-based sister company, SWIA. As a result of these illegal actions, the price of polysilicon plummeted, rendering Sachsen's performance impracticable and frustrating the purpose of entering into the contracts with Hemlock.
Hemlock demanded the entire outstanding balance due to Hemlock from 2012 through 2019 – close to $600 million – plus post-judgment interest. Sachsen argued that this would be an unenforceable penalty rather than permissible liquidated damages under the contract. At the most, Sachsen argued, it should pay only for Hemlock’s lost profits since Hemlock did not have to actually produce polysilicon for Sachsen after the breach. This would have saved approximately $200 million for Sachsen.
Both the district and appellate courts found that since even drastic changes in the market are not sufficient to trigger the impracticability defense, Sachsen could not here either, even given the alleged Chinese interference. This, said the district court, was irrelevant because the alleged illegal actions of the Chinese government had “simply caused a market shift in pricing, making it unprofitable for Sachsen to perform as promised.” The appellate court cited to a case where even a $2m a day loss causing a company to go out of business did not warrant the defense. Both courts referred to the standard “floodgates” arguments and not blaming third parties for one’s own contractual misfortunes.
OK, but so what about the lost profit argument? Although such cost savings might factor into an ordinary breach-of-contract claim, the courts concluded that considering cost savings was inappropriate in the context of the particular take-or-pay provision in place between these parties. Hemlock, in other words, was entitled to full payment under the contract even if Sachsen refused delivery of the polysilicon. “Under these circumstances, Hemlock would have had no need to produce the polysilicon, but would still be entitled to be paid in full. The court persuasively reasoned that the [contract] therefore contemplated situations in which Hemlock's cost savings would be irrelevant to the amount of payment that Hemlock was due.”
That argument seems terribly circular to me. Hemlock was entitled to the full contractual amount because Hemlock was entitled to the full contractual amount? Uhm, even if it did not have to do anything and thus did in fact enjoy huge cost savings? I find that erroneous, nonsensical, and actually rather vindictive on the part of the U.S. court system over a foreign entity.
The appellate court also found that “restricting Hemlock's recovery to lost profits without accounting for the fact that Sachsen saved (and Hemlock lost) approximately $509.1 million earlier in the contract term would be inequitable. In light of the fact that Sachsen benefited substantially in the earlier years of the LTAs, the liquidated-damages award is not ‘unconscionable or excessive.’” That does not make sense to me either. The parties took the contractual risks that they did. Granted, Sachsen then breached. But greed then seemed to come into play, for profits were the only thing Hemlock would have gotten out of the situation had there not been a breach. Hemlock was placed in a vastly better situation here than what liquidated damages normally allow for, precisely because they cannot be punitive. They seemed to have been here as they were a simple, yet extreme formula: if breach, pay the rest of the contract no matter what. When the contractually stipulated liquidated amount grossly exceeds actual damages, courts of law usually construe such provision as an unenforceable penalty. Not in this case, not even for a windfall of $200 million.
The case is Hemlock Semiconductor Operations, LLC v. SolarWorld Indus. Sachsen GmbH, 867 F.3d 692, 707 (6th Cir. 2017), reh'g denied (Sept. 19, 2017)