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IDT Corp. v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.

March 26, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pigott, J.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

IDT Corporation and Telefonica Internacional, S.A., both telecommunications companies, executed a Memorandum of Understanding ("MOU") in August 1999 concerning SAm-1, a vast underwater fiber-optic cable network Telefonica was building. Pursuant to the MOU, IDT was to buy from Telefonica a ten percent equity share in NewCo, a corporation that would "construct, establish, operate and maintain... and... sell capacity on" SAm-1. A separate entity was to be created to market products associated with the network. IDT would have the right to buy capacity in the network, at a favorable rate, during its operational life.

In June 2000, Telefonica informed IDT that it intended to modify the MOU, replacing NewCo with a larger entity, Emergia, in which Telefonica offered IDT a five percent share. According to IDT, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. ("Morgan Stanley"), Telefonica's investment banker, advised IDT in the summer of 2000 that the value of a five percent interest in Emergia was far greater than that of a ten percent interest in NewCo. Nevertheless, IDT, unpersuaded, broke off negotiations with Telefonica in October 2000.

Although Morgan Stanley acted as Telefonica's investment banker in relation to SAm-1, it had previously acted on IDT's behalf in 1999, in negotiations concerning a different proposed fiber-optic cable network, and in subsequent matters. IDT engaged Morgan Stanley as its financial adviser in regard to shares in Net2Phone, Inc. that it sold in the summer of 2000 for about $1 billion. According to IDT, in 1999-2000, Morgan Stanley requested and received confidential business and financial information concerning IDT, had access to IDT's records, and enjoyed wide-ranging communications with its executives.

IDT commenced an arbitration proceeding on May 25, 2001, against Telefonica, alleging that Telefonica had breached the MOU, in particular its provisions entitling IDT to an equity share in NewCo and giving it the right to buy capacity in SAm-1. IDT sought an award in an amount no less than $3.15 billion. IDT made no allegations against Morgan Stanley. No representative of Morgan Stanley testified, but a valuation memorandum concerning NewCo and Emergia that Morgan Stanley had presented to IDT in 2000 was subpoenaed and submitted to the Arbitration Panel.

Following a lengthy hearing, the Panel concluded that Telefonica had breached both the "capacity purchase" and "equity purchase" provisions of the MOU. It calculated IDT's aggregate damages for Telefonica's capacity purchase breach to be $16,883,817. However, noting the weakness of the telecommunications market in the second half of 2000, the Panel calculated that the present value of IDT's interest in NewCo was negative, and concluded that IDT had suffered no damages as a result of Telefonica's breach of the equity purchase provisions*fn1. Telefonica paid IDT $21.6 million, representing damages and interest.

On November 5, 2004, IDT commenced this action against Morgan Stanley, alleging that it had provided Telefonica with confidential information about IDT, induced Telefonica to breach the MOU and, moreover, presented false and misleading evidence to the Arbitration Panel, affecting the Panel's assessment of IDT's damages. Its complaint contains five causes of action: (1) breach of fiduciary duty, (2) intentional interference with existing contract, (3) intentional interference with prospective business relations, (4) misappropriation of confidential and proprietary business information, and (5) unjust enrichment. IDT seeks compensatory damages, disgorgement of profits obtained by Morgan Stanley in connection with SAm-1, punitive damages, and the return of a $10,000,000 fee that IDT paid Morgan Stanley in relation to the Net2Phone, Inc. transaction, plus interest and fees.

Morgan Stanley moved to dismiss the complaint under CPLR 3211, arguing, among other things, that IDT's claims were barred by collateral estoppel and the statute of limitations. Supreme Court dismissed IDT's intentional interference with prospective business relations claim, but otherwise denied the motion. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, with one Justice dissenting, holding that IDT's remaining claims were not barred by collateral estoppel, because IDT had not "had an opportunity to conduct discovery on the extent of the damages it suffered due to Morgan Stanley's alleged tortious conduct" (45 AD3d 419 [1st Dept 2007]). The majority also concluded that the claims stated valid causes of action and were not time-barred. The Appellate Division granted Morgan Stanley leave to appeal to this Court, certifying the question whether its order was properly made. We answer that question in the negative and reverse.*fn2

Although the issue of whether IDT is collaterally estopped from relitigating the amount of its compensatory damages divided the Appellate Division in this case, we need not address it, because all of IDT's claims are either time-barred or fail to state a cause of action. We conclude that IDT's breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with contract, and misappropriation of confidential and proprietary business information claims are untimely and its unjust enrichment claim fails to state a cause of action. We address the causes of action in the sequence they appear in the complaint.

IDT's first cause of action alleges that Morgan Stanley breached fiduciary duties it owed to IDT, by "provid[ing] Telefonica with IDT's confidential and proprietary business and financial information without IDT's knowledge or consent," thus inducing Telefonica to renege on the MOU, and by "devis[ing] a fraudulent scheme to dupe both IDT and the Arbitration Panel as to the 'distinction' between NewCo and Emergia and the valuation of those companies." IDT alleges that the Arbitration Panel was misled into minimizing the amount of damages Telefonica owed to IDT. It seeks full compensatory damages in an amount it describes at the outset of its complaint as "hundreds of millions of dollars" as well as disgorgement of profits and punitive damages.

IDT submits that its breach of fiduciary duty claim is governed by a six-year statute of limitations and is therefore timely. Morgan Stanley asserts that a three-year limitations period applies.

New York law does not provide a single statute of limitations for breach of fiduciary duty claims. Rather, the choice of the applicable limitations period depends on the substantive remedy that the plaintiff seeks (Loengard v Santa Fe Industries, Inc., 70 NY2d 262, 266 [1987]). Where the remedy sought is purely monetary in nature, courts construe the suit as alleging "injuries to property" within the meaning of CPLR 214 (4), which has a three-year limitations period (see e.g. Yatter v William Morris Agency, 256 AD2d 260, 261 [1st Dept 1998]). Where, however, the relief sought is equitable in nature, the six-year limitations period of CPLR 213 (1) applies (Loengard, 70 NY2d at 266-267). Moreover, where an allegation of fraud is essential to a breach of fiduciary duty claim, courts have applied a six-year statute of limitations under CPLR 213 (8) (Kaufman v Cohen, 307 AD2d 113, 119 [1st Dept 2003]).

Here, IDT primarily seeks damages in the amount of "hundreds of millions of dollars" and the equitable relief it seeks, including the disgorgement of profits, is incidental to that relief. This is not an action in which it can reasonably be asserted that "the relief demanded in the complaint... is equitable in nature and that a legal remedy would not be adequate" (Loengard, 70 NY2d at 267). Thus, looking to the reality, rather than the form, of this action (see ...

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