Lopesan Touristik v Apollo Principal Finance. Importance of choice of court in lis alibi pendens applications testifies to English courts’ strong support for party autonomy..

Another day and another application for a stay on the basis of Article 30 Brussels Ia. Lopesan Touristik SA v Apollo European Principal Finance Fund III (Dollar A) L.P. & Ors [2020] EWHC 2642 (Comm) engages a Sale and Purchase Agreement (SPA) between Lopesan as seller and Spanish company Oldavia as buyer, for Lopesan’s interest in the Buenaventura hotel in Spain. The Hotel is owned by Creative Hotel Buenaventura SAU.

Oldavia is a special purpose vehicle through which Apollo, who are private equity interests, acquired the Hotel for c.€93 million. That funding commitment was reflected in the terms of an Equity Commitment Letter (ECL), under which Apollo promised Oldavia, on the terms and conditions set out in the ECL, to provide it with the funding required to complete the SPA, which obligation was expressly made enforceable by Lopesan under the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999.

The SPA is governed by Spanish law and contains an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of the Spanish courts. The ECL is governed by English law and contains an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of the English courts.

Completion did not take place, and there are disputes between Lopesan and Oldavia as to whether Oldavia was or is obliged to complete under the SPA.

On 12 August 2020, Lopesan commenced proceedings against Oldavia in Madrid seeking specific performance of Oldavia’s obligation to complete under the SPA. Parties agree that those proceedings will not be determined for at least 12 months. On 20 August 2020, Lopesan wrote to Apollo seeking confirmations and undertakings intended to ensure that, if the specific performance claim against Oldavia succeeded, Apollo would provide the funds to Oldavia to allow completion to occur. Apollo disputed that Oldavia was under any obligation to complete, and as a result that it was under any corresponding obligation to put Oldavia in funds to enable it to complete.

On 15 September 2020 Lopesan then issued proceedings seeking to enforce its rights as a third party beneficiary under the ECL by way of an order for specific performance of Apollo’s obligation to put Oldavia in funds. Lopesan also issued an application for a speedy trial of that action to ensure judgment was delivered before 1 January 2021: there is a potential argument that Apollo’s obligations will lapse on 1 January 2021, even if, before that date, Oldavia came under a legal obligation to complete the SPA.

Apollo seek a stay of the proceedings under A30(1) BIa.

At 47 Foxton J refers to the Privatbank /EuroEco discussion which he summarises as ‘whether actions are related for the purposes of A30 only when the actions can in fact be heard and determined together, or whether actions are related where they would be heard and determined together but for some external factor (such as exclusive jurisdiction agreements or subject-matter limits on the jurisdiction of a particular court) which prevents this.’ Effective v theoretical hearing together, in other words. He sides with Privatbank but also accepts, with reference to Privatbank, that a practical inability to achieve an outcome where both cases are heard and determined together will be a factor which weighs against granting a stay as a matter of the discretion which Article 30 grants the judge, and that “absent some strong, countervailing factor, the fact that proceedings cannot be consolidated and heard together will be a compelling reason for refusing a stay”.

Further, and with reference to The Alexandros and to Generali v Pelagic Fisheries, where the factor which prevents the two actions being heard together is an exclusive jurisdiction clause, that of itself will constitute a powerful (although not insuperable) factor against staying proceedings which have been brought in the parties’ chosen jurisdiction pending the determination of proceedings elsewhere. At 50 he holds that this is a factor even when the other proceedings have themselves not been commenced in breach of contract.

At 57 Foxton J points that neither the relatedness of the actions nor that the Spanish court is first seised, are disputed. Relatedness exists given that any issue arising in the English proceedings which concerns the issue of whether Oldavia was obliged to complete the SPA necessarily arises in Spain. He then holds that the degree of relatedness is high and that the Spanish courts have much closer proximity to the subject matter of the case, involving, as it does, issues as to the effect of Covid-19 and the Spanish government’s response to it on a Spanish hotel, and the legal effects of those and other matters on a contract governed by Spanish law. However, at 58, if the English proceedings are stayed, it will not be possible to hear and determine the claims in the English and Spanish proceedings together, given the conflicting exclusive jurisdiction clauses in the ECL and the SPA. The decision (whether on issues of law or fact) in the Spanish proceedings would not be binding in the English proceedings, although if Lopesan fails in the Spanish proceedings, that will in practice be determinative of the English proceedings. Findings of law in the Spanish proceedings will also have a strong evidential value in the English proceedings.

Nevertheless, the significance of the English jurisdiction clause and the practical impossibility to hear the claims together in the Spanish courts, make him decide at 60 ff against a stay. His judgment displays the characteristic support of the English courts and English law for party autonomy: parties have deliberately structured the transaction so that claims under the ECL would be heard in a different jurisdiction to claims under the SPA. Consider his reasoning at 61:

That choice having been made, no doubt for good commercial reasons, and the events which have transpired being a scenario which must have been squarely within the parties’ contemplation, it would take a very strong case to justify staying proceedings brought as of right here pending the outcome of proceedings in another jurisdiction. The closer proximity of the Spanish courts to the dispute, nor its status as the natural forum to determine issues of Spanish law, are not sufficient to justify a stay, both because this must have been obvious to the parties when they put this arrangement in place, and because the parties expressly agreed not to raise any objections to proceedings in England on the ground that proceedings have been brought in an inconvenient forum. I do not suggest that this last factor is determinative or that it precludes an Article 30(1) stay. There is a public, as well as a purely private, interest in avoiding irreconcilable judgments within the Brussels Recast regime. However, the factor that the parties wanted the dispute to be determined in their chosen forum regardless of whether another court might be a more convenient forum is a factor which weighs in the balance against a stay.

A relevant judgment.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law – 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.14.5.
Third edition forthcoming February 2021

 

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