A federal US District judge in California has temporarily frozen Faraday Future CEO Jia Yueting’s ownership stake in the company, and put a protective order on the mansions he owns in California, according to new court documents filed Thursday. It’s the second freeze placed on Jia’s ownership stake in the company in the last two weeks. The decision comes at a time when the EV startup is nearly completely out of cash after a months-long clash with its main financial backer, Chinese real estate conglomerate Evergrande, that has resulted in hundreds of layoffs and furloughs.
The new freeze is a result of a lawsuit filed earlier this week in the central district court of California by a Chinese company called Shanghai Lan Cai Asset Management Co, Ltd. The company claims Jia never paid back a 50 million yuan (or about $7 million) loan that was given to his other company, the streaming service LeTV, in late 2016.
Shanghai Lan Cai Asset Management, or SLC, says it took this case to arbitration in China and won, but that Jia — who has lived in the US since the summer of 2017 after he assumed full control of Faraday Future — has “neither paid SLC nor indicated any intent to do so in the near future.” SLC ultimately decided to pursue Jia in US federal court, and this week filed suit with a “petition to confirm arbitration award,” where it is asking a judge to recognize the decision that was handed down in China.
Jia is on a national debtor blacklist in his home country, and owes — via LeTV, LeEco, and other companies that he ran there — hundreds of millions of dollars to various creditors. Knowing this, SLC asked the court to freeze Jia’s assets while the case plays out in US court; specifically, the company asked the court to put a temporary protective order on his 33 percent ownership stake in Faraday Future, as well as the multimillion-dollar mansions he owns in California through a shell company that The Verge reported on last year.
“Although Jia is reported to be an individual of immense wealth, his record of paying creditors—especially recently—is very poor,” lawyers for SLC wrote to the court in a filing that requested the temporary freeze on Monday. The lawyers argued for the freeze out of fear that Jia might try to transfer his ownership stake in the company or sever his connections to the houses, since he has taken similar actions the past. “There are compelling reasons to believe that Jia can and will take steps to make assets subject to this Court’s jurisdiction unavailable for enforcement purposes.”
Judge S. James Otero granted SLC’s request Thursday. He wrote that federal court is “very likely to confirm” the arbitration decision due to the terms of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, otherwise known as the “New York Convention,” an agreement between well over 100 countries to recognize arbitration decisions across borders. Jia’s ownership stake in Faraday Future is crucial because it’s the only thing standing in the way of Evergrande — which owns a bigger 45 percent stake, but carries less voting rights — taking full control of the EV startup.
SLC is seeking slightly more than $11 million in restitution (the value of the loan, plus interest). Lawyers for Faraday Future recently valued Jia’s stake in the company at $1.48 billion (based on the valuation generated by Evergrande’s $2 billion investment in late 2017), and the total value of the homes he owns is more than $20 million. At least three other creditors from China have filed suit against Jia in the US, with one accusing him of setting up “hundreds” of “shell companies” to escape his debt. Lawyers for Jia and a representative for Faraday Future did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
SLC is a subsidiary of another Chinese entity that was able to place a freeze on Jia’s ownership stake last week in a different jurisdiction, according to a spokesperson for Kobre & Kim, the law firm representing both companies. The other company, To-Win Capital, similarly pursued the recognition of an arbitration decision from China, but filed suit in Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court. That court has jurisdiction over the two shell companies — FF Peak Holding and FF Top Holding — which Jia uses to protect his ownership stake. To-Win is funding both court cases, according to Kobre & Kim.
These new court actions come at a precarious time for Faraday Future, which has laid off and furloughed hundreds of employees over the last two months. The EV startup began 2018 flush with new cash, and had a goal of kicking off production of its luxury electric SUV by year’s end. But it spent Evergrande’s first installment of $800 million by July. Jia and the company asked for a $700 million advance on the remaining $1.2 billion, which Evergrande initially agreed to. In return, the Chinese real estate giant asked Jia to step away from the company, claiming that his status as a debtor in China was harming the progress of establishing Faraday Future’s brand and production efforts in China.
Faraday Future believes Evergrande wrongfully withheld this money after agreeing to advance it, and filed a grievance with an arbitration court in Hong Kong (where the Evergrande subsidiary that technically made the investment is headquartered). The company also sued Evergrande claiming that the investor is “deliberately starving” Faraday Future into bankruptcy. A group of Faraday Future employees filed a similar suit claiming, as minor shareholders in the company, that Evergrande had devised a “conspiracy” to destroy the startup.
In the Hong Kong case, the arbitrator has already passed down two interim decisions. One was that Faraday Future was allowed to seek up to $500 million in new funding outside of the Evergrande deal, since it obviously wasn’t going to get more money from an investor with which it was engaged in a legal battle. The other decision went against the startup. Faraday Future asked the arbitrator to loosen Evergrande’s grip on its IP and other assets, which were offered as collateral in order to secure the $2 billion investment. The arbitrator declined the request — a decision that theoretically makes Faraday Future even less appetizing to any interested new investment firms.
In the meantime, Faraday Future has largely halted all operations and is running on fumes. Co-founder Nick Sampson has resigned, along with a number of other key executives. In November, Faraday Future borrowed $10 million against the land it still owns in Nevada (where it once wanted to build a $1 billion factory), one of the few assets Evergrande seems to have not encumbered. The startup still had to place hundreds more people on furlough in early December, and it doesn’t expect that to change until at least February. Only about 300 employees remain at Faraday Future, which once boasted a roster of close to 1,500 in the US, having pulled talent away from the likes of Tesla, Apple, and each of the big three US automakers.