Anchor defendants in follow-up competition law cases. The ECJ confirms AG’s view on joinders. Sticks to Article 5(3 /7(1). Locus damni for purely economic loss = registered office.

In Case C-352/13 CDC, in which the ECJ held last week, at issue is among others the use of Article 6(1) of the Brussels I-Regulation (8(1) in the recast) when the claim against the anchor defendant has been settled before the trial is well and truly underway.

I reviewed JÄÄSKINEN AG’s opinion here.  The ECJ’s overall approach to Article 6 is not to take into account the subjective intentions of plaintiff, who often identify a suitable anchor defendant even if is not the intended target of their action. Like its AG, the Court does make exception for one particular occasion, namely if it is found that, at the time the proceedings were instituted, the applicant and that defendant had colluded to artificially fulfil, or prolong the fulfilment of, Article 6’s applicability. I had expressed reservation vis-a-vis this suggestion, obviously in vain. In cases such as these, where tort is already clearly established (via the European Commission’s cartel finding), the intention of ECJ and AG seem noble. Collusion to defraud is disciplined by the non-applicability of Article 6. However this arguably serves the interests of the parties guilty to the other type of collusion involved: that of defrauding not procedural predictability, but rather consumers’ interest. 

Next, the referring court enquired about the application of Article 5(3)’s special jurisdictional rule in the event of infringement of competition law, where that infringement concerns a complex horizontal agreement, spread over a long period of time, and with varying impact in various markets. The AG had suggested dropping application of Article 5(3) (now 7(1)) altogether, both with respect to locus delicti commissi and locus damni. Here the Court disagreed. Difficult as it may be, it is not to be excluded that locus delicti commissi can be established. At 50: one cannot rule out ‘the identification, in the jurisdiction of the court seised of the matter, of a specific event during which either that cartel was definitively concluded or one agreement in particular was made which was the sole causal event giving rise to the loss allegedly inflicted on a buyer.’

For locus damni, the Court again has no sympathy for either mozaik effect of Article 5(3), or indeed the often great difficulties in establishing locus damni, flagged by the AG. At 52: ‘As for loss consisting in additional costs incurred because of artificially high prices, such as the price of the hydrogen peroxide supplied by the cartel at issue in the main proceedings, that place is identifiable only for each alleged victim taken individually and is located, in general, at that victim’s registered office.

Registered office as the locus damni for purely economic loss, lest my memory fails me, has not been as such confirmed by the ECJ before. It is also currently pending in Universal. The Court is in my view a bit radical when it comes to justifying registered office as the Erfolgfort: at 53: ‘That place fully guarantees the efficacious conduct of potential proceedings, given that the assessment of a claim for damages for loss allegedly inflicted upon a specific undertaking as a result of an unlawful cartel, as already found by the Commission in a binding decision, essentially depends on factors specifically relating to the situation of that undertaking. In those circumstances, the courts in whose jurisdiction that undertaking has its registered office are manifestly best suited to adjudicate such a claim.

Finally, on the issue of choice of court in the agreements between the victims of the cartel, and those guilty of the cartel, the Court follows the AG’s lead. Such clauses are not generally applicable to liability in tort (the clause would have to refer verbatim to tortious liability). Neither do they in principle bind third parties, lest of course there be subrogration (Refcomp). (The referring national court has given very little detail on the clauses at issue and hence the ECJ notes that it could not reply to all questions referred).

In the end, it is the finding with respect to economic loss for which the judgment may be most remembered.

Geert.

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Arbitral anti-suit injunctions and the Judgments Regulation. Grand Chamber holds they are outside the scope, but not therefore invincible.

The ECJ today has held, in a matter of factly manner (I had suspected the Court would be brief), that the enforcement of arbitral awards falls outside the Brussels I-Regulation, where that enforcement by the court of that State, effectively prohibits the party concerned from taking the case to a court in that very Member State. Rich was the main formula referred to, among the various precedents: ‘reference must be made solely to the subject-matter of the dispute‘ to assess the scope of Brussels I’s arbitral exclusion.

Importantly, West Tankers was distinguished particularly on the basis that in the facts at issue, there was no competing court in another Member State, hence no scope for the principle of mutual trust to be violated. The AG’s review of the impact of the recitals newly added by the Brussels I recast, was not addressed at all by the Court.

The judgment does not solve all outstanding issues, however. Firstly, the Court’s reasoning seems to suggest that where competition with a court in another Member State is at issue, effet utile of the Brussels I Regulation might take the upper hand, as it did in West Tankers. Recognition of the award arguably in such case would amount to anti-suit. Further, the Court (this was a Grand Chamber judgment) points out that the award still has to go through the national court’s standard recognition and enforcement process, outside the framework of Title III of the Regulation, instead governed by national residual law as well as the New York Convention. Both of these (including through ordre public) might still offer quite a remit for the Lithuanian courts to refuse recognition.

Geert.

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Defining ’employment’. CRUZ VILLALÓN AG in Holterman on applying Brussels I to defendant with dual director/employee capacity

CRUZ VILLALÓN AG Opined yesterday in C-47/14 Holterman (no EN version of the Opinion was available at the time of writing). What if a defendant is pursued both on the basis of his capacity as a director of the company, and for alleged failure properly to have carried out his duties as employee?

Applicant Holterman is incorporated in The Netherlands. Defendant is Mr Spies, a German national, domiciled in Germany. He was employed by applicant between 2001 and 2005/06, first as employee, subsequently also as director of Holterman’s establishments in Germany. Applicant alleges that defendant has caused damage as a result of improper fulfillment of his duties, indeed intentional recklessness, as director. Application is made at the court at Arnhem, where Spies successfully argues that the court has no jurisdiction on the basis that application has to be made of the protective category of ‘individual contracts of employment’.

Questions referred, were

1.    Must the provisions of Section 5 of Chapter II (Articles 18-21) of Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 1 be interpreted as precluding the application by the courts of Article 5(1)(a) or of Article 5(3) of that Regulation in a case such as that at issue here, where the defendant is held liable by the company not only in his capacity as director of that company on the basis of the improper performance of his duties or on the basis of unlawful conduct, but quite apart from that capacity, is also held liable by that company on the basis of intent or deliberate recklessness in the execution of the contract of employment entered into between him and the company?

2    (a) If the answer to question 1 is in the negative, must the term ‘matters relating to a contract’ in Article 5(1)(a) of Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 then be interpreted as also applying to a case such as that at issue here, where a company holds a person liable in his capacity as director of that company on the basis of the breach of his obligation to properly perform his duties under company law?

(b) If the answer to question 2(a) is in the affirmative, must the term ‘place of performance of the obligation in question’ in Article 5(1)(a) of Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 then be interpreted as referring to the place where the director performed or should have performed his duties under company law, which, as a rule, will be the place where the company concerned has its central administration or its principal place of business, as referred to in Article 60(1)(b) and (c) of that Regulation?

3    (a) If the answer to question 1 is in the negative, must the term ‘matters relating to tort, delict or quasi-delict’ in Article 5(3) of Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 then be interpreted as also applying to a case such as that at issue here, where a company holds a person liable in his capacity as director of that company on the basis of the improper performance of his duties under company law or on the basis of unlawful conduct?

(b) If the answer to question 3(a) is in the affirmative, must the term ‘place where the harmful event occurred or may occur’ in Article 5(3) of Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 be interpreted as referring to the place where the director performed or should have performed his duties under company law, which, as a rule, will be the place where the company concerned has its central administration or its principal place of business, as referred to in Article 60(1)(b) and (c) of that Regulation?

Spies essentially argues that the employment section of the Regulation trumps concurrent jurisdiction on the basis of contract. ‘Contract of employment’ so far has not been addressed in the abstract by the ECJ, other than incompletely in Shenavai Case 266/85, where it referred to the need for a durable relation between individual and company. In particular of course, a contract for employment needs to be distinguished from a contract for the provision of services. The Advocate General takes inspiration from the protective intent of the employment contracts heading, to suggest that supervision and instruction, jointly summarised as ‘subordination’, are determining factors for positions of employment. Even higher management can find itself in such position, given that and provided its actions, notwithstanding a wide independent remit, are subject to control and direction of the companies’ bodies. Review of the company’s by-laws should reveal the existence of such control vis-a-vis higher management, read together with the terms and conditions of the contract of employment at issue (at 32). It is only, per Asscher, C‑107/94, if management itself through its shareholding, exercises control over those bodies, that the position of subordination disappears.

Once the national court, on the basis of ad hoc analysis, holds that there is a position of employment, the national court has to apply Brogsitter per analogia: namely whether the action concerned follows from an alleged improper fulfillment of that agreement (as opposed to an improper fulfillment of duties as a director).

In subsidiary fashion only, does the AG entertain the questions relating to Article 5(1) and 5(3) (now 7(1) and 7(2) respectively). Spies’ duties as a director (again, should the ECJ find against applicability of the employment section) have to be considered ‘contractual’ within the meaning of the Regulation. The place of performance of the obligation in the view of the AG needs to be determined using Article 7(1)b, ‘the place in a Member State where, under the contract, the services were provided or should have been provided;’. Using Car Trim and Wood Floor Solutions and quoting Stephanie Francq, the AG suggests the national court identify the location where the service was mainly provided.

The AG’s views on the employment heading, however, seem solid and I would be surprised were the ECJ to have to go into the subsidiary questions.

Geert.

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KA Finanz: On the ‘corporate exception’ of European private international law

In Case C-483/13 KA Finanz AG, the ECJ is asked to clarify the ‘corporate exception’ to the Rome Convention and subsequent Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations. The two main questions ask whether the ‘company law’ excepted area includes (a) reorganisations such as mergers and divisions, and (b) in connection with reorganisations, the creditor protection provision in Article 15 of Directive 78/855 concerning mergers of public limited liability companies, and of its successor, Directive 2011/35.

(Creditor protection, incidentally, was also addressed in C-557/13 Lutz, judgment held last week, within the context of insolvency proceedings. I shall have a posting on that case soon).

Reuters tells me ‘KA Finanz was split off from nationalised lender Kommunalkredit in an attempt to secure a sustainable future for the rest of the public sector finance specialist firm following the global financial crisis’. KA Finaz therefore is what is generally referred to as a ‘Bad Bank’.

The referring court, Austria’s Oberster Gerichtshof, would seem to be hedging its bets on whether the Rome Convention or the Regulation applies to the contract, and ditto for the 1978 Directive or the 2011 Directive aforementioned. The file may reveal more factual detail than the application as published, however the questions as phrased (namely quite speculatively rather than file related) probably will run into trouble on the admissability front, I imagine.

At the time of adoption of the convention, the Giuliano Lagarde Report went into a bit more detail as to what is and is not excluded:

Confirming this exclusion, the Group stated that it affects all the complex acts (contractual administrative, registration) which are necessary to the creation of a company or firm and to the regulation of its internal organization and winding up, i. e. acts which fall within the scope of company law. On the other hand, acts or preliminary contracts whose sole purpose is to create obligations between interested parties (promoters) with a view to forming a company or firm are not covered by the exclusion.

The subject may be a body with or without legal personality, profit-making or non-profit-making. Having regard to the differences which exist, it may be that certain relationships will be regarded as within the scope of company law or might be treated as being governed by that law (for example, societe de droit civil nicht-rechtsfahiger Verein, partnership, Vennootschap onder firma, etc.) in some countries but not in others. The rule has been made flexible in order to take account of the diversity of national laws.

Examples of ‘internal organization’ are: the calling of meetings, the right to vote, the necessary quorum, the appointment of officers of the company or firm, etc. ‘Winding-up’ would cover either the termination of the company or firm as provided by its constitution or by operation of law, or its disappearance by merger or other similar process.

At the request of the German delegation the Group extended the subparagraph (e) exclusion to the personal liability of members and organs, and also to the legal capacity of companies or firms. On the other hand the Group did not adopt the proposal that mergers and groupings should also be expressly mentioned, most of the delegations being of the opinion that mergers and groupings were already covered by the present wording.

This explanation does not necessarily of course clarify all. For instance, the Report would seem to suggest that ‘mergers and groupings’, at issue in KA Finanz, are covered by the exception. Presumably, given the nature of the remainder of the exception, this is limited to the actual final agreement creating the JV or merged company, and not to the complex set of agreements leading up to such creation, such as Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), or non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Along those lines and without at this time having revisited relevant scholarship outside my own, I would suggest creditor protection is not covered by the exception.

The Gerichtshof also seks clarification on whether there areany requirements concerning the treatment of mergers in relation to conflict of laws to be inferred from European primary law such as the freedom of establishment under Article 49 TFEU, the freedom to provide services under Article 56 TFEU and the free movement of capital and payments under Article 63 TFEU, in particular as to whether the national law of the State of the outwardly merging company or the national law of the target company is to be applied?’ Again, without having seen more reference to fact in the actual referral, this question to me seems far too academic to prompt the ECJ into entertaining it.

The Court’s ledger shows the application as having been lodged on 31 October 2014. That means some movement on it ought to be expected soon.

Geert.

 

 

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Employment, foreign mandatory rules and Greek public finance.

The German Federal Labour Court, the ‘Bundesarbeitsgericht’, has provided the ECJ with an opportunity to provide much needed clarity on the application of Rome I to continuing (employment) contracts, and on the Regulation (or as the case may be, the Rome convention)’s provisions on overriding mandatory law. The Bundesarbeitsgericht has issued a press release on the case, Giesela Rühl flagged the case in March, and Lisa Günther has more detailed input on the overall context. Claimant is a Greek, employed by the Greek State at the Greek primary school in Nuremberg (Germany). His salary was reduced in accordance with relevant Greek Saving Laws. Claimant asks for payment of the sums withheld. Is the German court bound to apply the Greek Saving Laws?

The case (which as yet to appear on the ECJ’s website) first of all seeks clarification on the temporal scope of Rome I. Article 28 Rome I provides that it applies to contracts concluded ‘as from 17 December 2009′ (this is the corrected format; initially Article 28 read ‘after’). When exactly a contract is ‘concluded’ needs to be determined in accordance with the lex causae as identified by the Regulation (an extension of Article 10(1), suggested by most if not all of relevant scholarship). There has hitherto been much less noise about the application of Article 28 to ‘continuing’ contracts': those concluded before the temporal scope of the Regulation, continuing after, however renewed, renegotiated, amended…: do these continue to be covered by the Rome convention ad infinitum, or is there a cut-off point at which these continuing contracts become newly concluded? Any suggestion along these latter lines presumably requires determination of a threshold. For instance, adaptation of price in line with inflation presumably is not sufficient to speak of a ‘new’ contract. But would contractually foreseen price renegotiation to take account of economic cycles, lead to such a new contract?

One’s intuitive assumption may be to prefer autonomous interpretation of the concept ‘concluded’ however in the current state of (lack of) harmonisation of contractual law, it is more likely that the Court will prefer an Article 10(1) type solution.

Next up is the application of Article 9’s provision on overriding mandatory provisions. This is the first time the ECJ will rule on that Article (Unamar was held under the Rome Convention). The Regulation quite deliberately limited the room for manoeuvre for the court seized to apply overriding mandatory law other than that of the forum: only such laws of the country where the obligations arising out of the contract ‘have to be performed’ can come into calling. That place is likely to be Germany in the case at issue (the Regulation does not define ‘place of performance’ under Article 9(3)).

No doubt the ECJ will cut some corners, per judicial economy, however the case nevertheless promises to be entertaining.

Geert.

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On ‘reasonable amounts’, Aarhus, and the price of environmental information. Sharpston AG in East Sussex County Council.

In East Sussex County Council Case C-71/14, the question under consideration is the application of Directive 2003/4 ‘s reasonableness test. Article 5 of the Directive provides that in situ access to information to for example public registers has to be free of charge. Further, that charges for supplying any environmental information must be ‘reasonable’.

In particular, how ‘objective’ must a reasonable cost be, seen against the light of English statutory law which allows local authorities to specify access (and other) fees providing that the amount ‘shall not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount’. Application in that case is made by a property search group with a view to commercial conveyancing. Sharpston AG on 16 April 2015 opined that even for commercial applicants, authorities’ hands are quite tied. In particular,

  • that Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 does not authorise a public authority to recover, through a charge for supplying information, all or part of the costs of establishing and maintaining a database in which it has organised the environmental information it holds and which it uses to answer requests for information of the type listed in a questionnaire such as that at issue in the main proceedings.
  • that a charge which does not exceed a reasonable amount within the meaning of Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 is a charge which: (i) is set on the basis of objective factors that are known and capable of review by a third party; (ii) is calculated regardless of who is asking for the information and for what purpose; (iii) is set at a level that guarantees the objectives of the right of access to environmental information upon request and thus does not dissuade people from seeking access or restrict their right of access; and (iv) is no greater than an amount that is appropriate to the reason why Member States are allowed to make this charge (that is, that a member of the public has made a request for the supply of environmental information) and directly correlated to the act of supplying that information; that
  • In particular, a charge of a ‘reasonable amount’ under Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 is to be based on the costs actually incurred in connection with the act of supplying environmental information in response to a specific request. That will include the costs of staff time spent on searching for and producing the information requested and the cost of producing it in the form requested (which may vary). However, it is not permissible for such a charge also to seek to recover overheads such as heating, lighting or internal services. And that
  • Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 requires public authorities to ensure that their charges do not exceed a reasonable amount, judged by the yardstick of what a ‘reasonable amount’ means objectively under EU law. That does not, as such, preclude a rule of national law according to which a public authority must satisfy itself that a charge levied meets that standard, however, Member State to ensure that there is (first) administrative and (then) judicial review of whether a public authority’s decision on what constitutes a reasonable charge is in conformity with the autonomous EU law meaning of what is ‘reasonable’ under Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4.

In other words: the current wording in the relevant English statute, in the view of the AG, does not infringe the Directive. (It does in my view at least however add a layer of complication: for the authority’s subjective finding of reasonableness subsequently has to be checked, in two tiers of appeal (administrative cq judicial), against the Directive’s objective standard).

Aarhus is considered throughout the appeal and hence Charles Banner’s book on the Aarhus Convention, just out with Hart, a timely publication I would think.

Geert.

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FIPA, Tws Automation and Ivan: ECJ confirms the secondary nature of ‘principles’ in EU environmental law

European environmental law principles may not have practical legal force in and of themselves. They are transposed into secondary law. It is their (incorrect) application and interpretation in conjunction with secondary law, which gives rise to citizens and corporations calling upon the principles to support their individual position. Hence despite their trumpeted value as ‘principles’, in the law in practice, individual citizens or corporations need transposition of said principles in secondary law, to argue that such secondary law has infringed the principles.

A clear application of this reality, is the recent ECJ judgment in Case C-534/13, a case with an impossibly long series of applicants and defendants, which for ease of reference I have dubbed FIPA, Tws Automation and Ivan in title of current posting. (After the main protagonists).

The main issue that arose, was whether national (Italian) legislation under which no provision is made for the authorities to require owners of polluted land who have not contributed to that pollution to carry out preventive and remedial measures, and the sole obligation imposed concerns the reimbursement of the measures undertaken by those authorities, is compatible with the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the precautionary principle and the principles that preventive action should be taken and that environmental damage should be rectified at source as a matter of priority.

The ECJ emphasises the role of Directive 2004/35 in this context. Held that the Directive does not hold against such absence. And recalled in line with previous case-law, that the environmental principles of the Treaty ‘do no more than define the general environmental objectives of the European Union, since Article 192 TFEU confers on the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, responsibility for deciding what action is to be taken in order to attain those objectives. (…)  Consequently, since Article 191(2) TFEU, which establishes the ‘polluter pays’ principle, is directed at action at EU level, that provision cannot be relied on as such by individuals in order to exclude the application of national legislation — such as that at issue in the main proceedings — in an area covered by environmental policy for which there is no EU legislation adopted on the basis of Article 192 TFEU that specifically covers the situation in question (…) Similarly, the competent environmental authorities cannot rely on Article 191(2) TFEU, in the absence of any national legal basis, for the purposes of imposing preventive and remedial measures.(…)’ (at 39-41)

A sobering conclusion, yet one solidly rooted in legal practice and institutional balance. Geert.

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