Lis alibi pendens rule does NOT apply (to the court seized second having such jurisdiction) in the event of exclusive jurisdictional rules – The ECJ in Weber v Weber

In Weber v Weber the ECJ gave helpful clarification of the non-application of the strict lis alibi pendens rules of the Jurisdiction Regulation in the event of infringement of the Regulation’s exclusive jurisdictional rules. This to my knowledge at least had not yet been clearly established by the Court.

Ms I. Weber (I’) and Ms M. Weber (‘M’), are co-owners to the extent of 6/10 and 4/10 of a property in Munich.  On the basis of a notarised act of 20 December 1971, a right in rem of pre‑emption over the four-tenths share belonging to M was entered in the Land Register in favour of I. By a notorial contract of 28 October 2009, M sold her four-tenths share to Z. GbR, a company incorporated under German law, of which one of the directors is her son, Mr Calmetta, a lawyer established in Milan. According to one of the clauses in that contract, M, as the seller, reserved a right of withdrawal valid until 28 March 2010 and subject to certain conditions.

Being informed by the notary who had drawn up the contract in Munich, I exercised her right of pre-emption by letter of 18 December 2009. On 25 February 2010, by a contract concluded before that notary, I and M once more expressly recognised the effective exercise of the right of pre-emption by I and agreed that the property should be transferred to her for the same price as that agreed in the contract for sale signed between M and Z. GbR. However, the two parties asked the notary not to carry out the procedures for the registration of the transfer of property in the Land Register until M had made a written declaration before the same notary that she had not exercised her right of withdrawal or that she had waived that right arising from the contract concluded with Z. GbR within the period laid down, which expired on 28 March 2010. On 2 March, I paid the agreed purchase price of EUR 4 million.

By letter of 15 March 2010, M declared that she had exercised her right of withdrawal from the contract of 28 October 2009. By an application of 29 March 2010, Z. GbR brought an action against I and M, before the District Court, Milan, seeking a declaration that the exercise of the right of pre-emption by I was ineffective and invalid, and that the contract concluded between M and that company was valid.

On 15 July 2010, I brought proceedings against M before the Landgericht München, seeking an order that M register the transfer of ownership of the four-tenths share with the Land Register.

 

The Court of Justice first of all had to decide whether an action seeking a declaration that a right in rem in immovable property has not been validly exercised, falls within the category of proceedings which have as their object right in rem in immovable property, within the meaning of Article 22(1) of Regulation No 44/2001. It held that it did, with the required amount of deference to national law: a right of pre-emption, such as that provided for by Paragraph 1094 of the BGB, which attaches to immovable property and which is registered with the Land Register, produces its effects not only with respect to the debtor, but guarantees the right of the holder of that right to transfer the property also vis-à-vis third parties, so that, if a contract for sale is concluded between a third party and the owner of the property burdened, the proper exercise of that right of pre-emption has the consequence that the sale is without effect with respect to the holder of that right, and the sale is deemed to be concluded between the holder of that right and the owner of the property on the same conditions as those agreed between the latter and the third party.

The next core question was whether Article 27’s lis alibi pendens rule applies in the event of the court second seized having exclusive jurisdiction. Here, the ECJ distinguished Gasser, in which it declined freedom for the court second seized to assume priority on the basis of a choice of court agreement. (A particular use of torpedoeing which is now addressed by the Brussels I-bis Regulation). It refers in particular to the positive obligation included in Article 35 of the Jurisdiction Regulation for courts not to recognise earlier judgments which were held in contravention of Article 22’s exclusive jurisdictional rules. Article 23’s choice of court agreements, by contrast, does not feature in Article 35.

The ECJ’s reference to Article 35  in my view means that the Court’s reasoning extends to all jurisdictional rules included in that article, including the protected categories of consumers and insureds (not, strangely, employees. This will change however following the Brussels I recast). There is lingering doubt however over the impact of the judgment on the application of Article 22(4)’s rule on intellectual property. In Weber (at 56) the Court holds that ‘ In those circumstances, the court second seised is no longer entitled to stay its proceedings or to decline jurisdiction, and it must give a ruling on the substance of the action before it in order to comply with the rule on exclusive jurisdiction.‘ In the application of Article 22(4), this continues to raise the question whether ‘the substance of the action before it’ only concerns the validity of the intellectual property, or also the underlying issue of infringement of such property.

 

Weber v Weber is a crucial further step in clarifying the lis alibi pendens rule. Sadly, family tussles do often advance the state of the law.

Geert.

 

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