Cunico v Daskalakis. Lugano Convention, employment and choice of court.

In [2019] EWHC 57 (Comm) Cunico v Daskalakis Baker J applies the employment and choice of court titles of the Lugano Convention 2007. Mr Daskalakis and the second defendant, Mr Mundhra, worked for the Cunico group. The group operated in base metals industries and markets. Defendants’ primary jobs were CEO and CFO respectively of Feni Industries AD (‘Feni’), the main industrial operating subsidiary of the group, incorporated and operating in FYR Macedonia. Feni owned and operated a ferronickel production plant in Kavadarci and the Rzanovo iron and nickel mine 50 km or so south of the city.

It is necessary to give a little bit of factual background to appreciate the jurisdictional issues.

Cunico Resources NV (‘Resources’) was incorporated in the Netherlands, to become the group holding company, in May 2007. Marketing was incorporated in Dubai, UAE, in July 2007, and operated in the Jebel Ali Free Zone as the main market-facing trading entity in the group. Resources had no operating activities. It existed as a holding company for the operating subsidiaries as investment assets, with a single dedicated (full-time) employee. Marketing traded by purchasing ore from other Cunico subsidiaries, and bailing the ore to a ferronickel plant within the group under a ‘tolling agreement’, for conversion by the plant to finished ferronickel. Marketing then sold the finished product to the market. Under the tolling agreement, fees for converting Marketing’s ore into finished ferronickel would be payable by Marketing to the operator of the ferronickel plant (e.g. Feni).

The Cunico group was owned, at the time of the events said to give rise to claims against the defendants, as a joint venture between International Mineral Resources BV (‘IMR’) and BSGR Cooperatief UA (‘BSGR’). Latterly, IMR has effectively all but bought BSGR out, via the intervention of proceedings in the Amsterdam Enterprise Chamber, so that today Resources is owned as to c.80% by Summerside Investments S.a.r.l., IMR’s parent company, with 50% of the remainder owned by each of IMR and BSGR.

Now, crucially (at 6): so-called ‘Advisory Contracts’ were signed as between Marketing and each of the defendants, in 2007 and again in 2010, that contained a jurisdiction provision in these words: “In case of disagreements, they shall be solved in the Court of the United Kingdom“. The claimants say that provision gives this court jurisdiction over their respective claims against the defendants under Article 23 of the Lugano Convention. It is common ground that the defendants were domiciled in Switzerland when proceedings were brought and that the claims brought against them are within the material scope of the Lugano Convention, so indeed it governs the question of jurisdiction in this case. It is also common ground that, in this international business context, the reference in the Advisory Contracts to “the Court of the United Kingdom” should be interpreted to mean the courts of England and Wales.

Marketing claims that defendants received bonus payments from Marketing to which they were not entitled and/or to procure payment of which they acted in breach of contractual and fiduciary duties owed to it.

The principal issue is whether the claims made are matters relating to individual contracts of employment so as to engage Section 5 of the Lugano Convention. Any claims that do engage Section 5 cannot be brought in England.

At 23: For each claim advanced by each claimant against either defendant, the question of jurisdiction gives rise to the following issues in this case:

i) Is that claim a matter relating to the employment of the defendant by that claimant, for the purpose of Section 5 of the Lugano Convention?

ii) If not, is that claim within the scope of the jurisdiction provision in either of the defendant’s Advisory Contracts?

iii) If so, for a claim by Resources or Feni, does that jurisdiction provision confer on the claimant an effective benefit? (This is a question under the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999, as each Advisory Contract was a contract only between the respective defendant and Marketing.)

Baker J decides following lengthy overview of the ’employment’ history of defendants that they were indeed employed across the group, and that Lugano’s employment heading therefore points away from jurisdiction in England. Surprisingly he does not refer at all to any CJEU precedent such as Holterman. The employment argument having succeeded, no assessment is made of Lugano’s choice of court provisions.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.8.3.

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