Heiploeg: Transfer of undertakings, employee protection and pre-packs. The Dutch Supreme Court Advocate-General on the implications of CJEU Smallsteps.

I am no expert in all things insolvency and restructuring. I have an interest in it because of the conflict of laws issues (see the Insolvency Regulation) and the relationship with Brussels Ia. I am also interested in the labour law implications of corporate restructuring. These trigger highly relevant ethical, economic, and legal concerns.

Directive 2001/23 protects employees’ rights in the event of transfer of undertakings. The position of employees of course may be seen by potential investors as a hurdle to get onboard. Employees are inevitably on their cost cutting horizon. (For emperical Dutch research see Aalbers et al here and review in NL of same on Corporate Finance Lab).

The Directive exempts (Member States may provide otherwise) bankruptcies ‘proper’ and analogous insolvency proceedings. (They have to be under the management of what the Insolvency Regulation now calls an insolvency practitioner: an insolvency trustee, in other words). In C-126/16 Smallsteps, the Court held that pre-packs also known as ‘hushed bankruptcies’ do not qualify: since such a procedure is not ultimately aimed at liquidating the undertaking, the economic and social objectives it pursues are no explanation of, or justification for, the employees of the undertaking concerned losing the rights conferred on them by Directive 2001/23 (at 50).

Frederik De Leo reported here more extensively and with more knowledge of the issues, on the implications of Smallsteps, including implications for both the Dutch and the Belgian Statutes and proposals on pre-packs and corporate restructuring. On the Dutch implications, Robert van Moorsel had interesting insight here (in Dutch).

In Heiploeg, which was initiated before judgment in Smallsteps but is still being litigated (by Trade Unions), the Dutch Supreme Court /Hoge Raad is now essentially asked to apply the various conditions which the Court of Justice imposed for the bankruptcy exception of Directive 2001/13 to apply. Its procureur-generaal (essentially here fulfilling the role of an Advocate-General at the CJEU) opined in a well-documented Opinion on 1 November 2019 (apologies for late reporting: the Opinion traveled all sorts of corners in my briefcase) and proposes that the Supreme Court annul the lower court’s application of Smallsteps (which had found that the conditions for exception from the employees’ rights Directive did apply).

The Opinion is not I fear accessible to non-Dutch speakers – I am hoping proper experts will report more extensively once the Hoge Raad’s judgment is out.

Geert.

 

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