The CJEU in Ellmes Property Services. Forum contractus in the case of real estate co-ownership with echoes of De Bloos.

The CJEU held yesterday in C‑433/19 Ellmes Property Services.

On the application of Article 24(1) Brussels Ia rights in rem it confirms Szpunar AG’s Opinion which I discussed here: the erga omnes charachter or not of the rights relied upon needs to be confirmed by the referring court for A24(1) to be engaged.

I suggested the forum contractus analysis was the more exciting one. The Advocate General advised it be determined by the Italian judge following the conflicts method per CJEU 12/76 Tessili v Dunlop, with little help from European harmonisation seeing i.a. as the initial co-ownership agreement dates back to 1978.

The Court held at 39 that the fact that a downstream co-owner was not a party to the co-ownership agreement concluded by the initial co-owners has no effect on there being a contract per A71(a)  BIa, per Ordre des avocats du barreau de Dinant and Kerr

Unlike the AG, however, the CJEU does not hold that the Tessili Dunlop looking over the fence test is required. It comes seemingly uncomplicated to the conclusion of the locus rei sitae as the forum contractus. At 44, yet linking it to the intention of the contractual obligations:

It seems that that obligation is thus intended to ensure the peaceful enjoyment of the property subject to co-ownership by the owner of that property. Subject to verification by the referring court, that obligation relates to the actual use of such property and must be performed in the place in which it is situated.

This may however harbour more uncertainty than first meets the eye. The CJEU here seems to suggest the original contractually designed ‘peaceful enjoyment by the owner’ , which indicates the contractual performance as being one of ‘actual use’ as determining the forum contractus.  A claim relating to a more immaterial use of the property, such as arguably letting the property for financial gain, or indeed an intention to divest the property, would in this perception not necessarily be linked to the locus rei sitae – which brings one back to the discussion entertained by the AG: depending on who brings which claim and how that claim is formulated (an echo from De Bloos, whose usefulness is currently sub judice in Wikingerhof), forum contractus will vary.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.1 (cited by the AG) and Heading 2.2.11.1.

(Third edition forthcoming February 2021).

Szpunar AG in Ellmes Property Services. Again, on rights in rem and, more challenging, on forum contractus and the spirit of CJEU De Bloos.

Acte clair is in the eyes of the beholder, I assume. However a confident judge would have sufficient CJEU authority to help them hold on the A24(1) BIa issues in C‑433/19 Ellmes Property Services in which Szpunar AG opined last week. (No EN version available at the time of publication of this post).

Do actions brought by a co-owner seeking to prohibit another co-owner from carrying out changes to his property subject to co-ownership, in particular to its designated use, arbitrarily and without the consent of the other co-owners, concern the assertion of a right in rem? In the negative, is the forum contractus per A7(1)(a) Brussels Ia the location of the property? The less clear issue in my view is the forum contractus element.

The location is Zell am Zee, contested use is, not surprisingly, tourist accomodation. Applicant in the national proceedings is an individual who lives in the apartment building. Defendant is a UK corporation who uses it for short-term lets despite the residential designation assigned to the building as a whole in the co-ownership agreement.

From CJEU authority including C-438/12 Weber v Weber it should be clear that other than the hardcore cases of ownership of real estate, the erga omnes v in personam character of rights in real estate depends on national law. The Advocate General in this respect points out that for the rights of co-owners in the case at issue to be rights in rem, Austrian law would have to be enable them to exercise these rights not just vis-a-vis the other co-owners, but also vis-a-vis third parties such as tenants. Whether this is the case in Austrian law has not been sufficiently explained in the reference, it seems.

For the impact of entry in the land register (where third parties can consult the co-ownership agreement), Szpunar AG reviews and contrasts C‑417/15 Schmidt v Schmidt, and C-630/17 Milivojević v Raiffeisenbank. Mere registration does not always entail erga omnes impact.

The Advocate General reminds us of the overall interpretation of Article 24, including the need for restrictive interpretation, and flags (with reference inter alia to the Handbook, p.73, for which I am, as always, sincerely humbled) that it is not just, or not even so much sound administration of justice which underlies A24. At least partially, Member States’ strategic interests are served by the issues listed in the Article.

Ellmes Property Services does not seem to raise additional issues such as we saw in C-25/18 Kerr. The Austrian courts could have dealt with this on their own, and seeing as the referring judge did not provide the kind of detail for the CJEU to judge, the AG’s suggestion is to leave it up to them to verify the erga omnes character.

That leaves (whether it will be needed depends on what the eventual insight will be on the erga omnes element), the forum contractus under A7(1). Parties differ as to the qualification of the contractual duty: is it a positive one (do!) or a negative one (must not!). The AG opts for the latter, with reference to CJEU 14/76 De Bloos: A7(1) refers to the contractual obligation forming the basis of the legal proceedings. I find the precedent value of De Bloos problematic in light of the many changes that have been made to Article 7 since, and in light of the engineering possibilities it hands to parties.

The AG advises that forum contractus will have to be determined by the Italian judge following the conflicts method per CJEU 12/76 Tessili v Dunlop, with little help from European harmonisation seeing i.a. as the initial co-ownership agreement dates back to 1978.

I am curious to see how far the Court will go in entertaining the issues at stake.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.1 (cited by the AG) and Heading 2.2.11.1.

Senior Taxi v Agusta Westland. Again on merits review and anchor defendants.

In Senior Taxi Aereo Executivo LTDA & Ors v Agusta Westland S.p.A & Ors [2020] EWHC 1348 (Comm) Waksman J discusses the same issues which I analysed in my review of Sabbagh v Koury (and he refers to that case at 51 ff). Proceedings arise out of the fatal crash of an Agusta Westland AW 139 twin turbine helicopter on 19 August 2011, during a flight from the Petrobras P-65 offshore oil platform in the Atlantic, west of Rio de Janeiro, to Macae Aerodrome in Brazil.

First and third defendant are an Italian company. Second defendant, AgustaWestland Ltd is an English company and the anchor defendant per A8(1) Brussels IA. At 32:

‘Defendants’ contention is that in order for Article 8 (1) to apply at all, the claim against the anchor defendant must at least be a sustainable one. I described this as “the Merits Test”. For present purposes, the requirement of sustainability can be equated with “viability”, “a real prospect of success”, a “serious issue to be tried” or a “good arguable case”. Neither party sought to argue that any fine point of distinction between these various expressions was relevant here.’

Reisch Montage and Freeport of course are CJEU authority referred to. As is Kolassa for the CJEU consideration of ‘merits review’ (particularly there: taking account of both defendant and claimant’s arguments) under A25 and A26 BIA) and CDC for the CJEU’s most recent proper discussion of the issue (at 86 Waksman J suggest CDC is not a ruling on the merits issue).

At 65 ff Waksman J follows the majority in Kabbagh, and not the dissent of Lady Justice Gloster – I as noted was more enclined to agree with her. Having confessed to his preference for there being a merits test, he then seeks to distinguish the CJEU in Reisch by focusing on the CJEU there finding on the basis of a ‘procedural bar’ in the Member State of the anchor defendant. At 83:

‘I do not find the reasoning of the CJEU here persuasive and I consider that the decision should be distinguished if possible. It can be distinguished because it is very clear from the judgments that the focus was on a national rule as to admissibility of the claim. Even allowing for differences of language, the expression “procedural bar” is not apt to include a lack of any substantive merit. Reisch is not therefore an obstacle to deciding that there is a Merits Test.’

And at 85:

‘that the reasoning of the court in Reisch was concerned more with what it simply saw as an illegitimate incursion of a domestic procedural rule (a bankrupt cannot without more be sued in ordinary litigation) into the operation of Article 6 (1). That, in and of itself decided the point. It was a question of form and not substance. But the Merits Test is a matter of substance.

Held: there is a Merits Test which must be satisfied before A8(1) can be invoked. That merits test is not met in casu.

A8(1)’s ‘so closely connected’ test clearly requires some appreciation of the facts and the legal arguments, as well as a certain amount of taking into account the defendant’s arguments. Yet this in my view does not amount to a merits test, and ‘sustainability’, “viability”, “a real prospect of success”, a “serious issue to be tried” or a “good arguable case” may well be synonyms – but there are not the same as an A8(1) merits test.

One to watch upon appeal.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.12.1

Kiobel v Shell in The Netherlands. Court confirms jurisdiction anchored unto mother holding and qualifies the suit as one in human rights: not tort. Also orders limited use of documents obtained in US discovery and limited continuation of the trial.

Update 26 July 2019 the English version of the judgment is now available here.

In January 2017 I reported that Ms Kiobel, following failure to convince the USSC of jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Statute, subsequently initiated proceedings in the Dutch courts to try and sue Shell over the case. (Evidently unrelated to the pursuit of Shell in The Netherlands on environmental grounds – a case which is still pending upon appeal).

The court in first instance at the Hague on 1 May accepted jurisdiction against

  • both the mother holding. That was not at all under discussion: this is done via Article 4 Brussels Ia’s domicile rule. Use of Article 33 /34’s forum non conveniens-light mechanism was not suggested;
  • two English-incorporated Shell daughters using Article 8(1) of the Brussels I a Regulation; and
  • the Nigerian daughter company. Against the Nigerian daughter company, jurisdiction needs to be anchored unto the Dutch mother holding using Article 7 of the Dutch CPR, which is a near carbon copy of Article 8(1) Brussels Ia, whose CJEU authority is followed by Dutch courts in the interpretation of the Dutch residual rule.

Coming so soon after the UKSC in Vedanta the Dutch case has received quite a bit of attention. After first not considering an English translation (not surprisingly; these are the Dutch courts, not a World Service), the clerks have now announced that there will be one, coming up some time soon.

Readers of the blog will expect me to hold the judgment against a clear jurisdictional and conflict of laws lens – in doing so, I fear I have to be a little bit less optimistic than media soundbites following the case.

Jurisdictional issues were in the end dealt with fairly summarily. Most attention went to issues of evidence and discovery, as well as a first review of the substance of the case.

Of note is:

  • At 4.3: acceptance by all parties of of Nigerian law as the lex causae; if need be, choice of law by all parties for Nigerian law as the lex causae. Rome II is not applicable ratione temporis. The case has this in common with the Milieudefensie case against Shell. This being a civil law jurisdiction, ius novit curia applies. The court has taken into account parties’ submissions on Nigerian law yet has also conducted its own research. Foreign law is ‘law’ in the civil law; not ‘fact’ as in the common law.
  • Claimants suggest that in the events in Ogoniland Shell acted as one organisation and treated the issue as one engaging the Shell concern as a whole (4.7 in fine);
  • Claimants purposedly do not wish their claim to be qualified as one engaging piercing of the corporate veil; duty of care; shareholders responsibility; or tort of negligence. Rather, as one engaging the Shell concern directly in a suit on infringement of human rights included in the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) and the Nigerian constitution. Tort is only suggested as an alternative should the court not follow the arguments on the basis of human rights (4.8).
  • At 4.12 the Court accepts the horizontal direct effect of human rights under Nigerian law, referring for that finding to Nigerian case-law. At 4.19 the Court notes the absence of statutes of limitation for human rights violations under Nigerian law: thus qualifying this as an issue of substance (lex causae), not procedure (lex fori). It revisits the statute of limitation issue at 4.47 ff (holding that under Nigerian law the suits can still be brought).
  • At 4.26 the court applies A8(1) BIa and A7 Dutch CPR in globo, given the same lines of interpretation, and finds succinctly that all conditions (Kalfelis; Roche Nederland; The Tatry) are met. It remarks at 4.26 in fine that given the same situation of law and fact, it was predictable for all parties that they might end up being sued in any of their corporate siblings’ domicile.
  • At 4.27 the court discussed summary dismissal. As seen in Vedanta, despite Owusu European courts are within their rights to reject the case in summary judgment if there is no ‘real issue’ to be tried against the anchor defendant. However this only applies against non-EU based defendants. Application of Article 8(1) does not allow such summary dismissal for EU-based defendants (see also C-103/05 Reisch Montage). The Hague court reviews summary dismissal only vis-a-vis the Nigerian defendant but finds succinctly that the suit is not prima facie without merit. There is a serious issue to be tried.
  • At 4.28 interestingly the Court rejects relevance of the High Court and the Court of Appeal‘s dismissal of jurisdiction in Okpabi, arguing that these courts employed ‘English law’. This underscores the argument I have made elsewhere, that there is a serious blank in the discussion on lex causae for the duty of care or, depending on the case, the piercing issue. The Dutch court here notes without hesitation that the English courts apply lex fori to that test, and so therefore, I am assuming, should they (meaning Dutch law in their case)?
  • At 4.29 it looks as if the Court considers some kind of reflexive argument which defendants seem to have made. Namely that the Dutch courts should respect the exclusive jurisdictional head under the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) – FREP Rules, for the Federal High Court in cases involving alleged infringement of human rights. However the Dutch court considers this a mere internal jurisdictional distribution rule, which does not hinder the Dutch courts in their assessment of the claims. There is no written or unwritten rule in Dutch private international law which suggests such deference to a Nigerian civil procedure rule.

Importantly, a great deal of attention at 4.30 ff  goes to the debate on the use of documents obtained in US discovery, in the Dutch proceedings. A fair amount of these had to be returned following a confidentiality agreement in the US proceedings. Claimants make recourse to Article 6 ECHR to regain access for use in the Dutch proceedings however the Dutch court curtails much of that. Common law discovery rules are notoriously more claimant friendly than those of the civil law (a comment also made by Marsh CM in Glaxo v Sandoz). It leads to Shell not having to turn over quite a large part of the documents claimants had hoped to use. [Note 18 May 2019 in my original post of 17 May I had ‘common’ law and ‘civil law’ accidentally mixed up in the previous sentence].

At 4.58 ff the Court then turns to the substance of the case for case management reasons, with a view to determining which parts of the claim may be made subject to further proof. It holds in a way which I imagine must have been very disappointing for claimants. Only limited claims (of the Nigerian daughter’s involvement in the bribing of witnesses) will be allowed to continue.

The court held that claims of controlling meddling in the Nigerian court proceedings were not proven with sufficient force for these claims to continue – instead it held that Shell’s policy of silent diplomacy, in line with its business policies, had been consistently carried out.

All in all I would suggest claimants have scored clear points on jurisdiction, minor points on discovery and a disappointing outcome for them on substance. Albeit that the witness bribe leg may still lead to a finding of human rights infringement.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Headings 8.3.1.1., 8.3.2.

BB Energy v Al Amoudi. Baker J (obiter) on ‘first seized’ in Brussels IA’s forum non light provision, Article 34.

Article 34 Brussels Ia reads that it applies when “an action is pending before a court of a third state at the time when a court in a Member State is seised of an action which is related to the action in the court of a third State”. In BB Energy (Gulf) DMCC v Al Amoudi & Ors [2018] EWHC 2595 (Comm) Baker J expressed obiter and most cautious views on what I suspect will be one of the points of discussion of Article 34, namely whether ‘pending’ means that the court of the third State was first seised, or simply that at the time of the application, there are two sets of proceedings.

At 23  Baker J said that ‘Articles 33 and 34 “do not seem to replicate the primacy of first seisin built into Articles 29 and 30.” However he did not engage at any length at all with the A33-34 conditions, for [at 15] It is, however, common ground that Article 34 of the Brussels Regulation (recast) does not apply because the Moroccan proceedings are in the nature of insolvency proceedings excluded from the scope of the regulation.’

His views on the A33-34 conditions are put in the most cautious of terms: at 23: ‘Articles 33 and 34 appear to include requirements not found in Articles 29 and 30, but on the other hand they do not seem to replicate the primacy of first seisin built into Articles 29 and 30.’ (emphasis added)

There is convincing argument in my view that A34 does include a condition of the EU court having to be seized first.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law – 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.14.5

 

Forum non conveniens, lis alibi pendens ex-EU following Brussels I Recast. High Court adopts limiting approach in UCP v Nectrus.

Update 8 July 2019 on the subsequent merits see [2019] EWHC 1732 (Comm).

In [2018] EWHC 380 (Comm) UCP Plc v Nectrus Limited Cockerill J takes the same conclusion on the new lis alibi pendens rule ex-EU (Articles 33-34) in the Brussels I Recast, which I had suggested in the Handbook (p.182). A court in a Member State seized of an action other than those based on Articles 4, 7, 8 or 9 cannot refuse jurisdiction in favour of a court based ex-EU.

From Herbert Smith’s summary of the case: Nectrus, a Cypriot company, commenced proceedings in the Isle of Man seeking payment of sums withheld by UCP, an Isle of Man company, on the sale of a company, Candor. UCP then commenced proceedings in England claiming that Nectrus was in breach of an Investment Management Agreement (IMA), the loss being the amount by which the sale consideration of Candor had been reduced, hence the amount withheld on its sale.

The IMA contained a non-exclusive jurisdiction agreement in favour of the English courts. UCP disputed the jurisdiction of the Manx court, but in the event the proceedings continued, indicated they would raise the cause of action relied on in the English proceedings by way of equitable set off. Nectrus disputed their right to do so.

Nectrus disputed the jurisdiction of the English court on the basis that the Manx courts were the most appropriate forum to determine the dispute and were first in time.

Other than for the articles listed above, the CJEU’s findings in Owusu continue to apply. That includes English jurisdiction on the basis of non-exclusive choice of court, covered by Article 25 of the Recast Regulation. Justice Cockerill is entirely correct in unhesitatingly (at 39) rejecting forum non conveniens.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.4 (International impact of the Brussels I Recast Regulation), Heading 2.2.14.5.2.

Citicorp v Maan Abdulwahed. Forum non conveniens, lis alibi pendens ex-EU following Brussels I Recast. High Court confirms inapplicability in case of choice of court.

A brief note on the entirely correct judgment in [2017] EWHC 2845 (Comm) Citicorp Trustee Company aor v Maan Abdulwahed et al.

Macdonald Eggers J at 51 held ‘Article 33 of the Brussels Recast Regulation allows the Court to stay the proceedings where jurisdiction is based on articles, 4, 7, 8 or 9 of the Regulation, but there is no similar provision in respect of jurisdiction assumed under article 25. In this case, the Court must assume jurisdiction in accordance with article 25. It is mandatory’.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.4 (International impact of the Brussels I Recast Regulation), Heading 2.2.14.5.2.