I earlier posted a guest blog on the qualification of the Dutch Peeters /Gatzen suit, a damages claim based on tort, brought by a liquidator against a third party having acted wrongfully towards the creditors. Bobek AG opined two weeks back in C-535/17 NK (insolvency practitioner for a baillif practice) v BNP Paribas Fortis.
His Opinion is of relevance not just for the consideration of jurisdiction, but perhaps even more so (for less litigated so far) for the analysis of applicable law.
Roel Verheyden has commented on the Opinion in Dutch here, and Sandrine Piet had earlier contextualised the issues (also in Dutch) here. She clarifies that the suit was introduced by the Dutch Supreme Court in 1983, allowing the insolvency practitioner (as EU insolvency law now calls them) to claim in tort against third parties whose actions have diminished the collective rights of the creditors, even if the insolvency person or company at issue was not entitled to such suit. The Advocate General himself, in his trademark lucid style, summarises the suit excellently.
Importantly, the Peeters /Gatzen is not a classic pauliana (avoidance) suit: Bobek AG at 16: ‘The power of the liquidator to bring a Peeters-Gatzen action is not limited to cases where the third party belongs to the circle of persons who, based on a Paulian (bankruptcy) claim .. would be liable for involvement in allegedly detrimental acts. The liquidator’s competence relates more generally to the damage caused to the general body of creditors by the wrongful act of a third party involved in causing that damage. The third party need not have caused the damage or have profited from it: it is sufficient that that third party could have prevented the damage but cooperated instead.’
In the case at issue, the third party is BNP Paribas Fortis, who had allowed the sole director of the company to withdraw large amounts of cash from the company’s account.
Firstly, on the jurisdictional issue, Nickel /Goeldner and Nortel had intervened after the interim judgments of the Dutch courts, creating doubt in their minds as to the correct delineation between the Insolvency and Brussels I Recast Regulation. The Advocate-General’s approach in my view is the correct one, and I refer to his Opinion for the solid arguments he deploys. In essence, the DNA of the suit are the ordinary rules of civil law (re: tort). That it be introduced by the insolvency practitioner (here, the liquidator) and that it is the case-law on liquidation proceedings which has granted that right to the liquidator, is not materially relevant. Note that the AG correctly adds in footnote 40 that even if the suit is not subject to the Insolvency Regulation, that Regulation does not disappear from the litigation. In particular, given that liquidation proceedings are underway, the lex concursus determines the ius agendi of the liquidator to bring the suit in tort, in another Member State (Belgium, on the basis of Article 7(2) or 4 Brussels I Recast).
Now, for applicable law, the AG first of all completes the analysis on the basis of the Insolvency Regulation, in the unlikely event the CJEU were not to follow him on the jurisdictional issue. Here (para 85 ff) the referring court wishes to know whether, if the Peeters-Gatzen action is covered by the Insolvency Regulation, such a claim would be governed, pursuant to Article 4(1) of that Regulation, by the law of the Member State where the insolvency proceedings were opened as regards both the power of the liquidator to bring that claim and the substantive law applicable to that claim. This question seeks to determine whether it is possible to follow the approach of the second-instance court in the main proceedings, and separate the law governing the powers of the liquidator (ius agendi) from the law applicable to the merits of the claim. The powers of the liquidator would then be governed by the lex fori concursus (Dutch law, per Article 4(2)(c) Insolvency Regulation). That article states that ‘the law of the State of the opening of proceedings … shall determine in particular … the respective powers of the debtor and the liquidator’. However, the merits of the claim would then be governed by the law applicable by virtue of the general (non-insolvency) conflict of law rules. In the present case that would lead to application of residual Dutch conflict of law rules, because the Rome II Regulation does not apply ratione temporis as the AG further explains. These rules lead to Belgian law being the lex causae.
Within the assumption of the Insolvency Regulation determining jurisdiction (for see footnote 40 as reported above, re ius agendi) the AG emphasises the Regulation’s goal of Gleichlauf: at 89: If the Peeters-Gatzen action were covered by the Insolvency Regulation, all its elements would be governed exclusively by the conflict of law rules of that regulation.
(Current) Article 16’s exception such as in Nike and Lutz does not come into play for as Bobek AG notes at 94, ‘It is difficult to see how the Peeters-Gatzen action at issue in the main proceedings could be qualified as a rule ‘relating to the voidness, voidability or unenforceability of legal acts detrimental to all the creditors’, in the sense of Article 4(2)(m) [old, GAVC] of the Insolvency Regulation. The purpose of such an action is not a declaration of the voidness, voidability or unenforceability of an act of the third party, but the recovery of damages based on the wrongful behaviour of that third party towards the creditors. Therefore, as Article 4(2)(m) [old, GAVC] of the regulation would not apply in the main proceedings, the exception in Article 13 [old, GAVC] could not apply either.’
The AG finally discusses the referring court’s question whether if the Peeters-Gatzen action is exclusively subject to the lex fori concursus, it would be possible to take into account, whether directly or at least by analogy, and on the basis of Article 17 Rome II read in conjunction with Article 13 (now 16) of the Insolvency Regulation, the security regulations and codes of conduct applicable at the place of the alleged wrongful act (that is to say, in Belgium), such as financial rules of conduct for banks. Article 17 Rome II reads ‘In assessing the conduct of the person claimed to be liable, account shall be taken, as a matter of fact and in so far as is appropriate, of the rules of safety and conduct which were in force at the place and time of the event giving rise to the liability.‘
I have argued before that Article 17 Rome II does not have the rather extensive impact which some attribute to it. The AG, after signalling that the Article is yet to be applied by the CJEU, notes that Rome II does not apply here ratione temporis. He then concludes with an aside (it is not articulated as a proper argument – which is just as well for it is circular I suppose): at 104: ‘the more pertinent question is… whether it is really necessary to have recourse to a cumbersome legal construction, in this case the application of rules by analogy, outside of their material and temporal scope, in order to reach a solution (the application of Belgian law) which solves a problem (the applicability of Netherlands law by virtue of the Insolvency Regulation) that should not have been created in the first place (since the Peeters-Gatzen claim at hand should fall within the scope of the Brussels I Regulation). In any event, I am of the view, also in this regard, that these questions by the referring court rather confirm that there is no close connection between that action and the insolvency proceedings.’
(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.4.1, Heading 5.7.