Taupo Car Club Incorporated v TMP Limited [2020] NZHC 495 (13 March 2020)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF NEW ZEALAND ROTORUA REGISTRY
I TE KŌTI MATUA O AOTEAROA
TE ROTORUA-NUI-A-KAHUMATAMOMOE ROHE
CIV-2019-463-000062
[2020] NZHC 495
BETWEEN
TAUPO CAR CLUB INCORPORATED
Plaintiff
AND
TMP LIMITED
Defendant
Hearing:
26 February 2020
Appearances:
G Judd QC and K Patterson for Plaintiff J W H Little for Defendant
Judgment:
13 March 2020

JUDGMENT OF ASSOCIATE JUDGE P J ANDREW

Introduction

[1] The plaintiff (TCC) is a motor sports club that conducts sport meetings and events at Centennial Park, Taupō. The defendant (TMP) operates the Taupō Motor Sports Park (also known as the Bruce McLaren Motor Sport Park) located on Centennial Park. TMP leases the land from the Taupō District Council (the Council).

[2] TCC and TMP are parties to a 2005 agreement (the Agreement) which gives TCC use rights to the track at the motor sport park for a specified number of days “free of charge” and on terms set out in the Agreement.

[3] The parties are disputing whether, under the Agreement, TMP is entitled to charge TCC a participant levy and, if so, the quantum of such a levy.

[4] The Agreement contains a multi-tiered dispute resolution process culminating in arbitration for “remaining differences” not resolved at the preceding stages of negotiation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

[5] TCC has applied for summary judgment seeking a declaration that it is unlawful for TMP to demand a $50 per car/day “participation levy”. TMP has filed an application in response seeking a dismissal or stay of the proceedings on the grounds that the Court lacks jurisdiction. The application for stay is based on cl 8(1) of Schedule 1 to the Arbitration Act 1996 (the Act). TMP contends that TCC’s claims breach cl 5 of the Agreement.

[6] In response, TCC contends cl 5 of the Agreement is inoperative because TMP has repudiated the Agreement. TCC claims TMP has failed to comply with its fundamental obligation to provide TCC with its guaranteed use rights free of charge and has also failed to engage with any of its cl 5 dispute resolution obligations.

[7] The critical issue I must determine is whether under cl 8 of Schedule 1 of the Act, the Agreement is inoperative; i.e. Has TMP repudiated the arbitration clause of the Agreement? If that clause is still operative, then cl 8 of the Act requires me to grant the stay TMP now seeks.

Factual background

[8] TCC has been conducting sports meetings at Centennial Park since 1959. Up until the early 2000s TCC used its own motor-racing circuit on the land leased directly from the Council.

[9] Under the Agreement, TMP agreed to develop TCC’s existing circuit and extensions on the circuit. TMP took an assignment of TCC’s lease from the Council.

[10] Under clause 3 of the Agreement, TMP agreed to pay TCC an annual fee of
$20,000 plus GST. TMP also granted TCC “guaranteed use” of specified tracks for a specified number of car race meetings per year. TMP guaranteed use of the tracks “free of charge on the basis set out in Clause 3.2 of this Agreement”.

[11] In January 2018, TMP notified TCC that it cancelled the Agreement. TCC then issued legal proceedings but those were settled at a mediation in November 2018. Under that settlement, TMP’s liability to pay TCC an annual fee of $20,000 plus GST was deleted and clause 3.2(a) was replaced as follows:

(a) The race meetings referred to in clause 3.1(b) include, free of charge, track hire, and the control tower Control-Roof for the track hired. TMP is entitled to charge for all other rights and services and including but not limited to:

(i) Catering and/or hospitality rights;
(ii) Signage rights;
(iii) Car park charge rights;
(iv) Pit garages
(v) Hospitality suites;
(vi) Participant levies;
(vii) Track cleaning levies;
(viii) non-race-control rooms in the control tower (including the timing room, the Clerk of the Course’s room, and the Stewards’ Room) (provided that TMP shall not be entitled to charge for these rooms for any of the three two-day events in clause 3.1(b)(i));
(ix) Paddock buildings/facilities (e.g. scrutineering pavilion);
(x) Temporary structures supplied by TMP;
(xi) Track (lights and start/finish) control light system;
(xii) Production broadcast or connectivity rights;
(xiii) Any other systems or facilities or rights to be provided by TMP.
[12] Clause 5 of the Agreement, which was unaffected by the 2018 settlement agreement, reads:

5.1 Initiating resolution – If a dispute arises out of or in connection with this Agreement the parties, using the procedures set out in this Clause 5, agree to make a genuine effort to resolve the dispute without resorting to litigation and without limiting in any way the parties’ obligations in Clause 2, Clause 3 or Clause 4. A party may initiate these resolution procedures by giving written notice to the other party with which it is in dispute.

5.2 Negotiations – The party who initiates the resolution procedures must name the representative in the negotiations when giving the written notice referred to in Clause 5.1. The party receiving such written notice must then promptly give written notice to the other party to the dispute naming its representative in the negotiations. Each representative must have authority to settle the dispute. Within three

(3) Business Days after both parties to the dispute have been so advised of each other’s representatives, the representatives must enter into negotiations to try to resolve the dispute. Each party to the dispute must conduct all such negotiations in good faith and with a desire to preserve a commercial relationship with the other parties to this Agreement.

5.3 Alternative dispute resolution – If the dispute is not resolved within the following 10 Business Days then, within a further five (5) Business Days, the parties in dispute must try to agree on a process for resolving the dispute, such as further negotiations, mediation, independent expert determination or mini-trial, but not arbitration or litigation. Agreement on a process is to include agreement on:

(a) the procedure and timetable for any exchange of documents and other information relating to the dispute;

(b) procedural rules and a timetable for the conduct of the selected method of proceeding; and

(c) a procedure for selection and compensation of any neutral person who may be employed by the parties in dispute.

5.5 Arbitration – If the parties in dispute fail to agree pursuant to Clause

5.3 on a dispute resolution process within the set or extended time limit or, using an agreed dispute resolution process, fail to settle the dispute within the set or any extended time limit, then any remaining differences and disputes arising between those parties concerning the construction or performance of this Agreement, or the rights and obligations of those parties (but no other differences or disputes), shall be referred to arbitration in accordance with the Arbitration Act 1996. The arbitration shall be conducted by one arbitrator, if the parties in dispute can agree upon one or, failing agreement, by an arbitrator to be appointed by the President for the time being of the Wellington District Law Society or his or her nominee.

[13] TCC had a motor sports event scheduled for March 2019. On 22 January 2019, TMP sent TCC an event contract for signature. This contract included a vehicle participation levy of $50 per car/day. TCC rejected the contract.

[14] The parties then negotiated and agreed upon interim arrangements so that the March 2019 meeting could go ahead. The meeting was held on that agreed basis. Further TCC meetings had been scheduled for June 2019 but these did not occur.

[15] TCC filed these proceedings in July 2019.

[16] By letter dated 14 August 2019, the solicitors for TMP wrote to TCC’s solicitors proposing that TCC discontinue the proceedings and that the parties instead refer TCC’s claims to arbitration in accordance with cl 5 of the Agreement. The letter noted that this would involve “skipping” the intermediate steps in the rest of cl 5 (i.e. negotiations, alternative dispute resolution, etc). TMP suggested that arbitration would likely achieve a quicker resolution of the claims made by TCC.

Relevant legal principles

[17] Clause 8(1) of Schedule 1 of the Act provides:

A court before which proceedings are brought in a matter which is the subject of an arbitration agreement shall, if a party so requests no later than when submitting that party’s first statement on the substance of the dispute, stay those proceedings and refer the parties to arbitration unless it finds that the agreement is null and void, inoperative, or incapable of being performed, or that there is not in fact any dispute between the parties with regard to the matters agreed to be referred.

[18] When interpreting arbitration agreements, a generous, liberal and inclusive reading is appropriate. The general principle, stated by this Court in Marnell Corrao Associates Inc v Sensation Yachts Ltd, is that:

Courts should uphold arbitration, by striving to give effect to the intention of parties to submit disputes to arbitration, and not allow any inconsistencies or uncertainties in the wording or operation of the arbitration clause to thwart that intention.

[19] In accordance with standard principles of contract law, a party to an arbitration agreement can lose the right to arbitrate where it has repudiated the arbitration agreement and the other party has accepted that repudiation, and so cancelled it. That is what the English Court of Appeal concluded had happened in Downing v Al Tameer, an authority TCC relies upon, addressed in greater detail below.

[20] The law in New Zealand as to cancellation of a contract is largely codified in subpart 2 of the Contract and Commercial Law Act:

36 Party may cancel contract if another party repudiates it

(1) A party to a contract may cancel the contract if, by words or conduct, another party (B) repudiates the contract by making it clear that B does not intend to –

(a) perform B’s obligations under the contract; or

(b) complete the performance of B’s obligations under the contract.

(2) This section is subject to the rest of this subpart.

38 No cancellation if contract is affirmed

A party is not entitled to cancel the contract if, with full knowledge of the repudiation, misrepresentation, or breach, the party has affirmed the contract.

Analysis and decision

[21] The parties agree that the critical question in determining the stay application is whether, prima facie, the arbitration clause of the Agreement remains operative. If the answer is yes, the proceeding must be stayed, with full consideration of the matter (if pursued) being left to an arbitral tribunal. The prima facie assessment standard of review is now well settled.

[22] The principal contention for TCC is that TMP has repudiated the arbitration agreement and in filing these proceedings TCC has accepted that repudiation. TCC further contends that the requirement in cl 5.5 for arbitration does not arise unless and until the preceding steps of the resolution dispute process set out in cls 5.1 – 5.3 have been taken. In particular, it is claimed that there has been no attempt to refine the issues (“any remaining differences and disputes”) as expressly contemplated by cl 5.5.

[23] TCC submits that TMP has persistently flouted the dispute resolution procedure in cl 5 of the Agreement. This is because it has refused to allow TCC to hold its events free of charge, as required, unless TCC submits to TMP’s demands for a participation levy at whatever level TMP sets.

[24] Mr Judd QC (for TCC) submitted that if there is a dispute under cl 5.1 of the Agreement (and there clearly is a dispute) then the procedures under the dispute resolution process are to be invoked without limiting in any way TMP’s obligation under cl 3 of the Agreement to provide track hire to TCC “free of charge”. This means that pending the determination of the dispute (which might ultimately be at the arbitration stage), TMP must adhere to the “free of charge” obligation. However, TMP, in insisting on participation levies, has repudiated the Agreement.

[25] TCC also says that TMP has no entitlement at all under the Agreement to impose a participation levy of the kind at issue here, and particularly where it is not providing any extra facilities or services in addition to what it is already contracted to provide.

[26] As noted above, TCC relies upon the English Court of Appeal decision Downing v Al Tameer, and contends that the essential facts of that case are almost identical to those of the present case.

[27] In Downing, the Court was concerned with whether the first defendant could rely on an arbitration agreement to stay proceedings. Prior to the proceedings having been issued, the first defendant ignored repeated attempts by the claimant to set arbitration proceedings in motion (requests to nominate arbitrators, etc), before eventually responding by denying any contractual relationship and stating in unqualified terms “the defendants have no intention of dealing with you further” (i.e. in relation to the obligation to arbitrate). In later correspondence, the first defendant’s solicitors had stated in similarly clear terms that it denied the existence of any contractual relationship.

[28] The Court found that prior to the issue and service of proceedings, the defendants were plainly indicating an intention not to be bound by the agreement to arbitrate. That is, they had repudiated both the contract generally and the arbitration agreement. The Court concluded:

Approaching the matter objectively, and looking at the correspondence as a whole, this was a situation which the claimant, having sought and requested the first defendant to pursue the arbitration route, only resorted to proceedings because of the first defendant’s refusal to cooperate or acknowledge the existence of the arbitration agreement. The statement made and attitude evinced in the first defendant’s letter dated 22 June 1995 in response to the claimant’s request to arbitrate, which denied any contractual relationship and stated an intention to deal with the claimant no further, was effectively maintained thereafter.

[29] I understand the frustration and concern of TCC that having long conducted events at Centennial Park and having given up its $20,000 annual fee entitlement in 2018, TMP now seeks to impose charges that appear fundamentally at odds with TMP’s obligation to guarantee use rights to TCC free of charge. However, I find that, at best, TCC’s claims and submissions establish a breach of cls 3 and 5.1 (i.e. a breach of contract) but do not amount to repudiation. I accept that there is a dispute and despite some initial delay by TMP, so do the parties. The dispute is over the interpretation of the Agreement and in my view, the arbitration clause of the Agreement remains operative for determination of that dispute.

[30] Whether a breach of contract amounts to a repudiation is “a serious matter not to be lightly found or inferred”. What has to be established is that the defaulting party has made clear it intends no longer to perform its side of the bargain. Proof of such an intention requires an investigation of the nature of the conduct, the attendant circumstances and the motives which prompted the conduct (among other things).

[31] In Kumar v Station Properties Ltd, the Supreme Court summed up the law in this way:

The mere fact that a party vigorously espouses a view of a contract’s meaning that is ultimately shown or accepted to have been wrong does not mean that the party is thereby manifesting an intention not to perform its obligations under the contract. If it is clear that the party accepts that it is bound by the contract, whatever meaning it is ultimately determined to have, the party should not be held to have repudiated the contract. By contrast, if a party persistently refuses to perform unless the other party accepts additional onerous terms inconsistent with the contract or in the mistaken view that there was never an enforceable contract, the party may well be found to have repudiated the contract. In such circumstances, the stance adopted amounts to a refusal to accept any obligation to complete the contract in accordance with its terms (emphasis added).

[32] Here, TMP accepts that it is bound by the entire contract (i.e. both the main contract and the arbitration clause) but simply takes a different stance on the meaning of participation levies, which is a matter of interpretation to be construed in light of the obligations in cl 3 generally. Clause 3.2(a) does expressly state that TMP is entitled to charge for “all other rights and services” including “participant levies”. Whatever the correct interpretation, I do not believe the threshold of a persistent refusal to perform has been reached, requiring TCC to accept additional onerous terms inconsistent with the contract. As discussed below, the parties have been attempting to negotiate a solution and an interim arrangement was reached in relation to the March 2019 race meeting.

[33] I also find that this case is not “essentially identical” or similar to Downing. At no point has TMP denied the existence of the Agreement, the dispute resolution clause or the arbitration clause. TMP has not repudiated either the main contract or the secondary agreement manifested in the arbitration clause. Despite its initial reluctance and its apparent hard-line stance on participation levies, TMP has not ignored or rejected attempts by TCC to initiate the dispute resolution process contemplated in cl 5. In Downing the first defendant denied the existence of the main contract and repeatedly ignored attempts to set arbitration proceedings in motion and indicated no intention of dealing further with the claimant. The position here is quite different.

[34] I accept the submission of Mr Judd that the principles in Downing can apply even if through filing the Court proceedings the innocent party has accepted the repudiation of the secondary agreement to arbitrate. This is because the innocent party can seek to uphold the main contract, notwithstanding the repudiation of the secondary contract. Mr Little did not dispute that proposition. However, and contrary to Mr Judd’s submission, I find that there has been no repudiation of either the main contract (the grant of use rights) or the secondary contract (the agreement to arbitrate).

[35] I now turn to address the Mr Judd’s second argument, namely that the requirement for arbitration under cl 5 does not and has not arisen in this case because the preceding steps in cls 5.1, 5.2 and 5.3 have not been met.

[36] That is not an attractive argument, particularly in a context such as this where there is a mutual obligation on the parties to make genuine efforts to resolve the disputes without resorting to litigation. As noted by Williams & Kawharu on Arbitration:

8.8.3 Dangers of multi-tier dispute resolution clauses

As noted above, specifying pre-arbitration conditions can often lead to uncertainty as to when arbitration can commence as it can be difficult to determine whether the pre-conditions to the arbitration have been satisfied, or whether they are even required to be satisfied. These difficulties have given rise to arguments that a failure to comply with particular pre-conditions renders the arbitration agreement invalid and unenforceable. Tribunals and courts are generally reluctant to reach this conclusion since, if an arbitration agreement ultimately fails, parties are likely to end up in court

– the exact place they had hoped to avoid by agreeing to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) procedure. In other instances, arbitration may be inevitable and requiring compliance with the procedures provided for in the pre-conditions will simply add costs and further delays to the ultimate resolution of the dispute (emphasis added).

[37] The comments of Williams & Kawharu are supported by the findings of the Court of Appeal in J R Porter & Ors v Gullivers Travel Group Ltd, where that Court held:

Provisions of the type contained in clause 28 [a referral for expert determination] are common in commercial contracts. If it should be that whenever negotiations broke down after meetings, consultations and the like, the parties could come to the court for relief, or seek some remedy rather than following the agreed arbitration or other dispute resolution, there would be little point in having such agreed processes in commercial contracts. It is difficult to believe that commercial parties would agree to a dispute resolution process which was intended to deal with an important substantive dispute concerning the calculation of price, but was not intended to deal with disputes about the provision of information and documents relevant to that price calculation. Yet that is the effect of the appellant’s argument. We note that as part of the price adjustment process the appellants were entitled under clause 3.2(b)(i) of the contract to liaise with PWC regarding the audit. This provided an opportunity for them to seek information and explanations as to the basis of the calculation prior to the dispute resolution process being invoked.

[38] In any event, on the facts of this case, I find the contention that the arbitration clause is inoperative because the preceding steps in cl 5 have not been followed, should be rejected. It is clear on the evidence that the parties have been negotiating with a view to try and resolve their dispute and I reject the submission of Mr Judd that the negotiations leading to the interim solution for the March 2019 meeting were focused only on that meeting and did not deal more generally with the dispute.

[39] Mr Terry O’Brien, the President of TCC, acknowledged in his email of 13 June 2019 to Mr Tony Walker of TMP that negotiations were taking place and that in terms of cl 5 of the Agreement the parties were required to try and resolve the matter between themselves. There was also a meeting between three board members of TMP and the full committee of TCC on 10 April 2019. The letter from Mr O’Brien to the board of TMP dated 27 May 2019 confirms that the reason for the levy (namely, whether other track hirers would be charged a levy and how the figure of $50/car per day was reached) was discussed at that April meeting. In my view, while far from perfect, the steps the parties did take were broadly in accordance with the substance of the requirements imposed by cls 5.1 and 5.2 (i.e. the steps preceding arbitration). It may be that the solicitors for TMP did not always respond to correspondence from TCC’s solicitors but in my view that does not provide a basis for inferring that TMP was not taking steps to try and resolve the dispute in the manner contemplated by cl 5.

[40] I accept in principle the submission of Mr Judd that the correspondence from TMP after the proceedings which proposed moving straight to arbitration cannot cure any previous default in complying with the preceding steps in the dispute resolution process. However, in this case there is probably some fault on both sides in failing to follow all the steps in cl 5, but I do not see that as a basis for concluding that cl 5 has been rendered inoperative. The practical solution proposed in TMP’s solicitor’s letter of 14 August 2019 is surely a sensible one. As noted by Wild J in Marnell Corrao Associates Inc v Sensation Yachts Ltd, where the parties have agreed on an arbitration evaluation clause, the Court will give full weight to the manifest intention to submit disputes to arbitration and create continuing legal relations.

[41] I also note that TCC likely had the option under cl 17 of Schedule 1 of the Act to seek interim relief if there was a practical problem in relation to holding sports events with a participation levy before the dispute could be finally resolved under cl 5.

[42] For all these reasons I conclude that cl 5 of the Agreement prima facie remains operative. In accordance therefore with cl 8(1) of Schedule 1 of the Act, the proceedings must be stayed with a full consideration of the issue of the participation levy (if pursued) to be left to the relevant arbitral tribunal.

Result

[43] The defendant’s application for a stay of the proceedings dated 12 September 2019 is granted in accordance with cl 8(1) of Schedule 1 to the Arbitration Act 1996.

[44] I am of the preliminary view that the plaintiff should pay costs to the defendant on a 2B basis and that the defendant’s application for increased costs should not be granted. If the parties cannot agree, then short memoranda (no more than three pages) are to be filed and served within 14 days.