If you’ve been following the multi-billion-dollar fight going on for Wachovia (Scribd copy of the Exclusivity Agreement at issue here, courtesy of Dealbook), you may have noticed the following:

In the Sunday night ruling, the Appellate Division of [New York] State Supreme Court threw out an order by Justice Charles Ramos issued late Saturday at the request of Citigroup; the order would have extended the time under which Wachovia and Citigroup had to complete their deal.

Citigroup, which announced on Sept. 29 that it had received federal government backing to acquire the banking assets of Wachovia Corp. for $2.1 billion, or the equivalent of about $1 a share, said it would appeal the decision.

The fight was also waged in federal court, where Wachovia asked U.S. District Judge John Koeltl to declare invalid part of the Citigroup deal that would have restricted Wachovia from considering competing bids.

Citigroup sued Wachovia and Wells Fargo in state court to enjoin them and order specific performance of the agreement, while Wachovia filed in federal court for a declaratory judgment affirming the enforceability of the Wells Fargo deal. The claims are analytically distinct, but factually exactly opposite: C wants to blow up WF’s deal and enforce C’s deal, while W & WF want to blow up C’s deal and enforce W & WF’s deal.

Now what?

Of course, the issue could have been partly resolved back when C and W reached their agreement by choosing a single court in which the agreement and its enforceability would be interpreted, but instead they went for the same boilerplate language you will find on almost all business contracts:

This agreement shall be governed by, and construed in accordance with, the laws of the State of New York. The parties hereby irrevocably and unconditionally submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of any state or federal courts sitting in New York City, Borough of Manhattan, over any suit, action or proceeding arising out of or relating to this letter agreement.

Why do businesses always consent to "state or federal" jurisdiction? Presumably, the advanages of one over the other are apparent at the time of the signing, so it would make sense to pick one or the other. "Flexibility" doesn’t make sense as an explanation — you just end up with the situation we have here.

One would think the problem of simultaneous federal and state suits would have been addressed by the Constitution itself, but it’s wholly silent on the issue. The answer arises from the Anti-Injunction Act of 1793, which in its current form reads:

A court of the United States may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a state court except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments.

The Act has teeth: unless one of the statutory exceptions applies, a federal injunction restraining prosecution of a lawsuit in state court is absolutely prohibited. Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 228-29, 32 L. Ed. 2d 705, 92 S. Ct. 2151 (1972). Moreover, "The mere existence of a parallel action in state court does not rise to the level of interference with federal jurisdiction necessary to permit injunctive relief under the ‘necessary in aid of’ exception." Lou v. Belzberg, 834 F.2d 730 (9th Cir., 1987).

Thus, the federal court cannot stop the state court even if it wanted to, nor can the state court stop the federal court.

So what happens? Usually, one of them voluntarily bows out.

In Pennsylvania, the challenge of a "prior pending action" falls under the general rubric of lis pendens, requiring the challenger establish the following three prongs:

A plea of former suit pending must allege that the case is the same, the parties the same, and the rights asserted and the relief prayed for the same…

Hillgartner v. Port Auth., 936 A.2d 131 (Pa. Commw. Ct., 2007). In Hillgartner, the state court pulled out in light of a parallel federal court action "because the first action in federal court includes and therefore adequately protects all Plaintiffs’ state claims for compensatory and punitive damages. Thus, Plaintiffs seek the same amount of money damages measured in the same way in both federal and state courts …"

On the flip side, Federal courts will frequently decline to exercise jurisdiction over primarily state law questions (like the interpretation of contracts), which is what everyone expects to happen here, hence Wachovia’s novel "federal" argument:

Wells and Wachovia went to federal court to argue that a provision in the new $700 billion Economic Stabilization Act, signed into law on Friday, made the dispute a federal matter. Last night, U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koetl gave lawyers until tomorrow to file briefs. According to Tulane law prof Elizabeth Nowicki, who reached out to us yesterday, Wachovia is arguing that, under federal law, Section 126(c) of the bailout bill voids the exclusivity agreement between itself and Citi, meaning that that Wachovia is free to negotiate with any entity it pleases. While Judge Koetl is apparently willing to entertain that argument, Professor Nowicki tells us she thinks the argument is a non-starter.

You can read more about Section 126(c) at the link above, then you can pause to marvel how the Senate passed a bill specifically addressing this exclusivity deal fewer than 48 hours after it was reached, in spite of Art. I, Sec. 10 of the Constituion, which prohibits laws impairing the obligations of contracts. Now that’s what I call lobbying power.

At the end of the day, there’s more than enough leeway in the law for both courts to keep going simultaneously, engaging in the dreaded and unseemly ‘race to judgment.’ My bet is that the Federal court will either bow out or drag its feet as a lesson to those who would try to make a federal case out of their humdrum multibillion-dollar contracts.