Posts Tagged Concession
Saey Home: The CJEU on choice of court and invoices, and place of performance of concession contracts.
C‑64/17 Saey Home, is yet another illustration of, mercifully for us conflicts lawyers, even fairly sophisticated businesses often fail properly to conclude commercial agreements. Here: what is said to be a semi-exclusive concession agreement, was concluded verbally only.
Saey Home & Garden is a company with its registered office in Kortrijk (Belgium), which specialises in the manufacture and sale, inter alia, of kitchen equipment and utensils bearing the trademark ‘Barbecook’. That company does not have a branch or establishment in Spain. Lusavouga has its registered office in Cacia, Aveiro (Portugal). Its premises are in Portugal. Its network covers Spain, inter alia, where it has no branch or establishment. Parties to the main proceedings concluded a commercial concession agreement concerning the exclusive promotion and distribution (with the exception of one client) in Spain.
First up, has choice of court in favour of the courts at Kortrijk (referred to by its French synonym Courtrai, but then without the ‘r’ in referral documents and by the CJEU) been validly made if this choice was only included in the general terms and conditions included in the invoices? Hoszig (where a jurisdiction clause is stipulated in the general conditions, such a clause is lawful where the text of the contract signed by both parties itself contains an express reference to general conditions which include a jurisdiction clause) and Leventis (the purpose of the requirements as to form imposed by Article 25(1) is to ensure that consensus between the parties is in fact established) are the most recent CJEU precedent referred to. Both of them build on standing CJEU principle: one must not be overly formalistic when assessing the existence of agreement, but one must be certain that such agreement exists. While it is up to the national court to assess this in fact, the Court does indicate it is unlikely to be the case when no written agreement has been made (neither initially nor subsequently confirming an earlier verbal agreement) and all one has are the invoices.
Choice of court being unlikely, next up is the application of Article 7(1) to determine which court has jurisdiction to hear an application for damages relating to the termination of a commercial concession agreement concluded between two companies, each established and operating in a different Member State, for the marketing of goods on the domestic market of a third Member State in which neither of those companies has a branch or establishment.
Referring to Corman-Collins, the Court classifies concession agreements as being service contracts, which per Article 7(1) second indent, leaves to be determined the ‘place in
a Member State where, under the contract, the services were provided or should have been provided;’. Note: the place in a Member State. Not different places. Per Wood Floor Solutions, when there are several places of performance of the obligation characteristic of a contract for the supply of services the ‘place of performance’ must be understood as the place with the closest linking factor, which, as a general rule, will be at the place of the main provision of services. This place of ‘main provision’ follows from the provisions of the contract and, in the absence of such provision, of the actual performance of that contract and, where it cannot be determined on that basis, the place where the agent is domiciled (still per Wood Floor Solutions). This specific determination is left to the referring court.
One imagines different national courts may have treated all of this as acte clair – except perhaps for the peculiarity of Spain being a Member State where neither of the parties has either domicile or branch.
(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 18.104.22.168.
One or two interesting developments have been held up in my end of year queue. I shall report on them over the next week and a half or so. First up: judgment of the ECJ in Corman-Collins Case 9/12 – I reported on the Opinion of the AG here. The Court, like the AG, holds in favour of ‘services’: such is the diverse nature of the various obligations in the contractual relationship.
Given its confirmation of the contract falling under Article 5(1)(b), first indent, of the Brussels I-Regulation, the Court did not answer the final, subsidiary, question, which questioned the amount of European harmonisation of ‘place of performance of the obligation in question’ under Article 5(1)(a). As I flagged earlier, the AG had suggested the ECJ confirm its deference to national law on this issue, per Tessili Dunlop.
In Case C-9/12 Corman-Collins, the questions referred are as follows:
Corman-Collins is registered in Belgium; La Maison du Whisky in France. Jaaskinen AG justifiably replies to the first question in succinct fashion: where defendant is domiciled in a Member State other than the Member State of the forum, the Brussels I Regulation has priority over national jurisdictional rules (such as here: the 1961 Act on ‘concession’ agreements).
The 2nd and 3rd question are rephrased by the AG however also re-ordered: Article 5(1) b) of the Regulation, being the more specific, has priority over Article 5(1) a). Jaaskinen then points to an important difficulty: ‘concession’ agreements are not a concept known in EU law (in contrast, for instance, with ‘agency’). In view of the need for autonomous interpretation by the ECJ, the qualification or not of a contract as a ‘sale of goods’ cq ‘provision of services’ (two distinct categories employed by the Regulation), must not be left to national law (and ditto courts) to decide. The AG opts for ‘services’: sale of ‘goods’ is not the core distinguishing element in a ‘concession’ agreement – it is more than that: the holder of the concession rights is explicitly allowed by the other party, to distribute their goods in a given territory, indeed often this right is an exclusive right; holder and grantor often agree common sales techniques (indeed in the case at issue, use by the holder of a domain name indicating the grantor’s trading name); the concession agreement usually is a framework agreement, followed by individual sales agreements. Moreover, the holder commits to holding stock; to having an after sales service; frees the grantor from the requirement to have to establish their own distribution network in the territory; the grantor organises specific training sessions for the holder’s staff, etc. The holder therefore effectively provides a ‘service’, and jurisdiction has to be determined by Article 5(1) b), second indent.
Proof of whether such elements are present in the contractual relationship between parties, needs to be furnished by the party invoking the jurisdictional rule based on ‘services’; qualifications in accordance with lex fori are not relevant for such determination (European Law in other words harmonises qualification).
The final question, which the AG only entertains in subsidiary fashion, concerns the issue of what part of the contractual relationship needs to be withheld as ‘the obligation in question’ of Article 5(1)(a): ‘in matters relating to a contract, in the courts for the place of performance of the obligation in question;’ The concession holder in the case at issue (Corman-Collins) argues that where the grantor’s obligation entails delivery of the exclusive right for the holder to exercise an exclusive right of sale in a given territory, the suit for damages needs to be introduced in that territory.
‘The obligation in question’ was left undefined in both the Brussels Convention and the preparatory works. Indeed the Jenard Report is very brief on the special jurisdictional clause for contracts. In De Bloos the Court specified ‘For the purpose of determining the place of performance within the meaning of Article 5 (…) the obligation to be taken into account is that which corresponds to the contractual right on which the plaintiff’s action is based’. Plantiff’s suit inevitably leans upon defendant’s contractual obligations: it is the latter which determines ‘the obligation in question’. Where that place of performance lies, however, remains subject to national law: the Court in Tessili v Dunlop held that it was in no position to impose a European definition. Jaaskinen AG does not venture to give one, either: outside of the specific categories of Article 5(1)(b), European conflicts law has no grip on the qualification of contracts and their ‘place of performance’ by national courts.