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Tata wins temporary relief in India's biggest corporate feud

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India's top court granted temporary relief to the Tata Group in a feud with an ousted chairman Cyrus Mistry, a move that promises to reduce the legal distractions threatening to stunt growth at the US$111 billion conglomerate.

[NEW DELHI] India's top court granted temporary relief to the Tata Group in a feud with an ousted chairman, a move that promises to reduce the legal distractions threatening to stunt growth at the US$111 billion conglomerate.

A three-judge Supreme Court bench on Friday put on hold a lower court verdict last month that ordered Tata Sons, the group's holding firm, to reinstate Cyrus Mistry as chairman. On Dec 18, the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal said Tata Sons illegally removed Mr Mistry as chairman three years ago at the behest of Ratan Tata, 82, calling the action of the chairman-emeritus "oppressive" to minority shareholders.

Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said during the hearing that the tribunal made "an error" in its judgment and the lower court had no power to order the reinstatement of Mistry as Tata Sons chairman. The top court said it will hear the case in detail later, but didn't give a date for further proceedings.

The legal wrangling has weighed on the Tata Group - whose businesses span software to trucks and aviation - at a time when its flagship automobile and steel units have been facing challenges from a slump in demand. Crown jewel Jaguar Land Rover, acquired by Tata Motors in 2008, is looking for partners to bolster its flagging prospects, while Tata Steel  is slashing as many 3,000 jobs in Europe.

The Supreme Court also put on hold the prior order that Tata Sons, now a privately held firm, be turned into a publicly held company, which makes it easier for minority shareholders - including Mr Mistry's family - to sell.

Shares of Tata Motors and Tata Steel extended gains after the stay order issued by the top court. The auto unit jumped as much as 1.5 per cent in Mumbai on Friday, while the alloy maker gained as much as 2.2 per cent.

The lower court's verdict on Dec 18 had come as a severe blow to Tata, threatening to undo his legacy. Under his leadership for 21 years through 2012, the group embarked on an unprecedented expansion, acquiring companies such as JLR and British steelmaker Corus Group, spending more than US$15 billion.

Tata was succeeded by Mr Mistry as chairman in 2012. But the new leader sought to roll back some of his predecessor's moves in a bid to pare the group's debt, drawing his mentor's ire that eventually cost him his job and started the nation's biggest corporate feud.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Tata Sons argued that the lower court's verdict "will paralyse the management and functioning of Tata Sons and thus, is against the interest of Tata Sons." Ratan Tata, Tata Trusts - a collective of charities headed by Ratan Tata - and some Tata group companies also filed separate petitions.

Tata Sons has also argued that Mr Mistry's tenure had already expired and the order to reinstate him created confusion in the working of Tata Group companies and can sow seeds of a longer discord among minority and majority shareholders. Mr Mistry's family holds about 18 per cent of Tata Sons.

Mr Mistry was ousted as chairman of Tata Sons in October 2016, about four years after he had taken over the position from Ratan Tata. He turned to the National Company Law Tribunal to overturn his dismissal and following an unfavourable ruling there, appealed in the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, which gave a verdict in his favour.

While Mr Mistry has said he doesn't want to return to his old job, he said in a statement on Jan 5 that he wants his seat back on the board of Tata Sons and that he would fight for the rights of minority shareholders.

In another possible victory to Tata, the Supreme Court also rejected a proposal by Mr Mistry's lawyers for an interim arrangement to ensure the former chairman or his nominees return to the board of Tata Sons or the group companies.

Tata Sons controls and invests in the group's major companies and oversees 28 publicly listed firms. The 152-year-old group employs 700,000 people who make cars, blend tea, forge steel, sell insurance, write software, operate phone networks and package salt among much else.

Although Ratan Tata has retired from Tata Sons, he still heads the powerful Tata Trusts, which own 66 per cent of Tata Sons.

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