Forum non conveniens is one of several judicial abstention doctrines, applied from time to time by U.S. courts, that permit a court to dismiss (without prejudice) a plenary action in its discretion. In a forum non conveniens case, the court’s jurisdiction is not in question, but the relative legal “inconvenience” of having the matter heard in that court, as opposed to another court of competent jurisdiction, is deemed sufficient for the U.S. court to abstain from exercising its authority. A defendant seeking abstention on forum non conveniens grounds typically is required to establish that an adequate alternative forum is available, and that a balancing of interests strongly favors dismissal by the U.S. court in favor of that other forum.
But can – or should – such a court-made doctrine properly be a defense in a non-plenary proceeding brought by an arbitration awardee seeking enforcement vis-à-vis assets in the United States? Could a court outside the U.S. grant that remedy instead? And in any case, do the applicable international conventions afford U.S. courts the latitude to enforce arbitral awards in their discretion?
Federal courts in the United States have varied views regarding the matter. Two prominent United States Courts of Appeals – the Second Circuit (which allows the forum non conveniens defense in an enforcement proceeding) and the District of Columbia Circuit (which does not) – take opposite views on the subject, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to resolve the split. Therefore, the viability of the forum non conveniens defense in connection with the enforcement of arbitral awards varies and is uncertain in U.S. courts.