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GAR 100 - 11th Edition

Steptoe & Johnson

04 April 2018

Defending landmark ICSID awards against Zimbabwe as it pursues a claim against Montenegro and advises China in treaty negotiations

Pending cases as counsel 5
Value of pending counsel work US$851 million
Treaty cases 4
Current arbitrator appointments
1 (of which 1 is as sole or chair)
Lawyers sitting as arbitrator 1

US-based Steptoe & Johnson began developing its arbitration practice in the early 2000s, but 2016 was its breakout year after it achieved outstanding results in a pair of ICSID cases against the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe. The firm picked up a GAR Award in that year in the category of “international arbitration practice that impressed” and featured for the first time in the GAR 100 in 2017.

The firm’s modern arbitration practice took root when Steven Davidson in Washington, DC helped Motorola launch multiple claims against Turkish businessman Cem Uzan and his family. That dispute led to successful enforcement proceedings and the second ICSID claim ever filed against Turkey, which the firm settled in the mid-2000s.

Steptoe continued to build its investment treaty practice with the hire of Lucinda Low in Washington, DC. Low was counsel in Corn Products v Mexico – a case that produced the largest NAFTA award at the time – and served as US-appointed arbitrator in another dispute under the free trade agreement. She is also now an arbitrator at ICSID.

In 2007, the firm bolstered its practice with the addition of partner Matthew Coleman in London. Accompanying him were three investment treaty cases against Zimbabwe, including one that featured the largest ever number of claimants in a single ICSID case.

Network

In addition to London and Washington, DC, the firm has practitioners in New York and Beijing.

Who uses it?

Steptoe & Johnson counts GlaxoSmithKline, Cigna Insurance, Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals and Motorola among its clients, and has advised the governments of Canada, China, the Dominican Republic and South Korea.

It is currently handling investment treaty claims against Montenegro, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. It continues to represent two insurance companies in claims arising from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.

Track record

In 2015, the firm helped white farmers obtain landmark awards against Zimbabwe in the Bernhard von Pezold and Border Timbers cases. Zimbabwe was ordered to return farms confiscated as part of the land reform programme initiated by former president Robert Mugabe. It was the first ICSID case to consider discrimination on the basis of race, and one of the few where restitution was eventually ordered.

It also acted for African regional bank Ecobank in a dispute with its disgraced former CEO Thierry Tanoh that played out in an UNCITRAL arbitration, as well as litigation in Togo (where Ecobank is based), Ivory Coast and the UK. The dispute settled in 2016.

Recent events

The firm convinced an ICSID annulment committee to lift a stay of enforcement of the awards issued in the Bernhard von Pezold and Border Timbers cases.

It is defending a South Korean consumer electronics company LG from a US$500 million claim brought by Microsoft under the rules of the Finland Arbitration Institute. The arbitration in seated in Helsinki.

The firm is also representing Medusa, a subsidiary of Scotland’s Ramco Energy, in a US$100 million claim against Montenegro for termination of an oil and gas concession in the Adriatic Sea. The arbitration, launched in 2015, is being administered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The New York office represented ExxonMobil in a US court action to enforce an ICSID award against Venezuela. In a setback, the Second Circuit ruled in 2017 that sovereign immunity law means such awards cannot be recognised on an ex parte basis.

The firm is also helping China to negotiate an investment treaty with the EU.

Steptoe & Johnson deepened its investor-state expertise in 2017 with the recruitment of Brian Egan, the most senior adviser in the Obama State Department on treaty interpretation and public international law.

Lucinda Low from the Washington, DC office, was added to the ICSID panel of arbitrators. Soon after, she received her first appointment to an ICSID tribunal, as chair in a billion-dollar claim by an Italian banking group against Croatia.

Client comment

Steve Remp, chairman of Seawind Capital, singled out Steven Davidson in DC. “He’s a real international statesman, and has pleaded and won some very big investor-state cases,” Remp says.

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