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New York's Separate Entity Rule: Limitations on Foreign Account Seizures by U.S. Creditors

Upholding the Separate Entity Rule: Implications for Global Banking and Judgment Recovery

The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the state's "separate entity rule," a century-old law that prevents the seizure of foreign accounts by serving a restraining notice on a U.S. bank branch.

Motorola Credit Corp. v. Uzan [1], a case featured on the front page of today's New York Law Journal, involves Motorola's struggle to recover a $3 billion judgment against a Turkish family for failed telecommunication financing.

The Court of Appeals, responding to a second circuit's certified question, upheld New York's separate entity rule to maintain "international comity"[2] and to "avoid conflicts among competing legal systems."

Thus, Motorola is not permitted to serve a U.S. Standard Chartered branch with a restraining notice seeking to freeze $30 million in Uzan assets held by Standard Chartered in the United Arab Emirates.

Although Standard Chartered initially froze the money, bank regulators in both Jordan and the United Arab Emirates intervened subjecting Standard Chartered with contradictory directives—the type of "upheaval" that NY's separate entity rule has been successful at preventing.

The decision faced a strong dissent by judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam who criticized the rule for permitting the "most egregious and flagrant judgment debtors to make a mockery of our courts' duly-entered judgments."

What is the Separate Entity Rule in Collection Law?

The separate entity rule is a legal doctrine in banking law which treats each branch of a bank as a separate entity, distinct from its other branches, especially in the context of foreign branches. Under this rule, actions taken against a branch, such as account seizure or freezing, are only effective for the assets held in that specific branch and do not automatically apply to the bank's assets held in other branches, particularly those in different jurisdictions.

The separate entity rule serves to maintain international comity—the mutual recognition and respect of legislative, executive, and judicial acts of another jurisdiction—and to prevent the complexity and potential conflict that could arise if a local branch were compelled to enforce judgments or orders that are inconsistent with the laws or policies of the jurisdiction in which a foreign branch operates.

In conclusion, the ruling highlights the careful balance courts must maintain between enforcing judgments and respecting the global banking framework. The main takeaway from this decision is the confirmation that New York's legal system prioritizes international comity and the separate legal status of foreign bank accounts, even in the face of substantial judgment recovery efforts. This outcome is a reminder of the complexities facing judgment creditors in a globalized economy and the importance of considering international banking regulations in their recovery strategies.

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[1] 274 F. Supp 2d 481.

[2] Comity: legal reciprocity—the principle that one jurisdiction will extend certain courtesies to other nations (or other jurisdictions within the same nation), particularly by recognizing the validity and effect of their executive, legislative, and judicial acts.