Nortel. CJEU confirms Nickel & Goeldner, and extends Seagon to secondary proceedings.

I need to give a bit of a factual background before I can get to the implications of the ECJ’s (or CJEU, I still haven’t decided) finding in C-469/13 Nortel.

Nortel Networks SA is established in Yvelines (France). The Nortel group was a provider of technical solutions for telecommunications networks. Nortel Networks Limited (‘NNL’), established in Mississauga (Canada), held the majority of the Nortel group’s worldwide subsidiaries, including NNSA.  In 2008 insolvency proceedings were initiated simultaneously in Canada, the US and the EU. In January 2009, the High Court opened main insolvency proceedings under English law in respect of all the companies in the Nortel group established in the EU, including NNSA, pursuant to Article 3(1) of the Insolvency Regulation.

Following a joint application lodged by NNSA and the joint administrators, by judgment of May 2009 the court at Versailles opened secondary proceedings in respect of NNSA. In July 2009, industrial action at NNSA was brought to an end by a memorandum of agreement settling the action. It provided for the making of a severance payment, of which one part was payable immediately and another part, known as the ‘deferred severance payment’, was to be paid, once operations had ceased, out of the available funds arising from the sale of assets. That memorandum was approved by the court at Versailles. NNSA’s positive balance was subsequently however caught up in the global settlement for Nortel, including transfers of funds to escrow accounts in the US, to be distributed following global settlement, and new debt following the continuation of Nortel’s activities as well as costs related to the global winding-up of the company. The deferred severance payment therefore could no longer be paid.

The works council of NNSA and former NNSA employees brought an action before the court at Versailles seeking, first, a declaration that the secondary proceedings give them an exclusive and direct right over the share of the overall proceeds from the sale of the Nortel group’s assets that falls to NNSA and, second, an order requiring the liquidator to make immediate disbursement, in particular, of the deferred severance payment, to the extent of the funds available to NNSA. the French liquidator then summoned the joint administrators as third parties before the referring court. However, these then suggested the court at Versailles decline international jurisdiction, in favour of the High Court at London, and in the alternative, to decline jurisdiction to rule on the assets and rights which were not situated in France for the purposes of Article 2(g) of the Insolvency Regulation when the judgment opening the secondary proceedings was delivered. That Article reads

(g) “the Member State in which assets are situated” shall mean, in the case of: – tangible property, the Member State within the territory of which the property is situated, – property and rights ownership of or entitlement to which must be entered in a public register, the Member State under the authority of which the register is kept, – claims, the Member State within the territory of which the third party required to meet them has the centre of his main interests, as determined in Article 3(1);

There are essentially two parts to the referring court’s questions: (i) the allocation of international jurisdiction between the court hearing the main proceedings and the court hearing the secondary proceedings; and (ii) identification of the law applicable to determine the debtor’s assets that fall within the scope of the effects of the secondary proceedings.

On the (i) first question, the Court first reviewed whether the Insolvency Regulation applied at all – an issue seemingly which did not feature in the national proceedings nor in the written procedure before the CJEU, however which came up at the hearing. The issue being that what the Works Council was after was that an agreement to pay a debt be honoured: one that looks just like a fairly standard agreement were it not to arise out of insolvency. Per Nickel and Goeldner the Court reviewed whether the right or the obligation which respects the basis of the action finds its source in the common rules of civil and commercial law or in the derogating rules specific to insolvency proceedings. Here, the basis of the action, as was pointed out by Mengozzi AG, was relevant French insolvency law (for the determination of the order of creditors’ rights) and the Insolvency Regulation (for the determination of the hierarchy between main and secondary insolvency proceedings). The Insolvency Regulation therefore applies. The AG’s review in fact was clearer than the Court’s summary. More generally, the ECJ does seem to go out of its way to re-emphasise the Nickel and Goeldner formula, even if the separation of the Brussels I and the Insolvency Regulation was not particularly controversial in the case at issue.

Next, the Court essentially extended its Seagon/Deko Marty case-law to secondary proceedings. In Seagon, the Court held that Article 3(1) must be interpreted as meaning that it also confers international jurisdiction on the courts of the Member State within the territory of which insolvency proceedings were opened to hear an action which derives directly from the initial insolvency proceedings and which is ‘closely connected’ with them, within the meaning of recital 6 in the preamble to the Regulation. In Nortel the Court holds that Article 3(2) of that regulation must be interpreted analogously. Here, the related action seeks a declaration that specified assets fall within secondary insolvency proceedings. It is designed specifically to protect the local interests which justify the very establishment of jurisdiction for the secondary proceedings.

However, such action quite obviously has a direct effect on the interests administered in the main insolvency proceedings. The jurisdiction for the court of the secondary proceedings therefore cannot be exclusive. It is jurisdiction concurrently with the Member State of COMI. This is an altogether sec appreciation of the Court which, as Bob Wessels notes, in reality will create serious co-ordination headaches (one for which I do not think even the provisions for co-ordination in the new insolvency Regulation provide sufficient answer).

Finally, in reply to question (ii), the ECJ is fairly brief: Article 2(g) ought to suffice to give the referring court the guidance it seeks. Granted, the ECJ says, it will not be easy. But it ought to suffice. The one extra guidance the CJEU gives is that that provision is also applicable if the property, right or claim in question must be regarded as situated in a third State (such as here: in the escrow accounts).

All in all, quite an important judgment, indeed. Unlike Nortel’s sad demise, this judgment has quite a life ahead of it.

Geert.

 

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