Posts Tagged Corporations

Free movement of companies and Polbud. The CJEU is not for turning.

When I reviewed Kokott AG’s Opinion in C-106/16 Polbud, I flagged that Ms Kokott concluded that the freedom of establishment provided for in Articles 49 and 54 TFEU only applies to an operation whereby a company incorporated under the law of one Member State transfers its statutory seat to another Member State with the aim of converting itself into a company governed by the law of the latter Member State, in so far as that company actually establishes itself in the other Member State, or intends to do so, for the purpose of pursuing genuine economic activity there. In other words she proposed a test along the lines suggested by Darmon AG in Daily Mail, but rejected by La Pergola AG in Centros.

The CJEU today held along La Pergola lines. It thus indeed facilitates forum /applicable (lex societatis) shopping (argument made also by Gillis Lindemans) for companies. The writing was very clearly on the wall when the Court (in Grand Chamber nota bene) started citing the old chestnuts of Daily Mail, Centros and Inspire Art. That no business is actually being conducted by Polbud in the host Member State is viewed by the court as irrelevant (at 37 ff). In the absence of harmonisation of EU law, the definition of the connecting factor that determines the national law applicable to a company or firm falls, in accordance with Article 54 TFEU, within the powers of each Member State (at 34).

Freedom of establishment is applicable (third question);  that freedom has been restricted (first question); and that restriction (transfer of the registered office of a company incorporated under the law of one Member State to the territory of another Member State, for the purposes of its conversion into a company incorporated under the law of the latter Member State, in accordance with the conditions imposed by the legislation of that Member State, is subject to the liquidation of the first company) is not justifiable (second question).

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 7.

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Kokott AG in Polbud. It walks and talks like confirming precedent. But does it?

This post could have also carried the title ‘Pro real seat theory. Bud is it?’ [Polbud, Probud, you see…], but with all the Brexit shenanigans going on on Twitter I am somewhat running dry of pun headlines.

I do indeed wonder the following: Kokott AG Opined in C-106/16 Polbud on 4 May, Gillis Lindemans pondered the Opinion (in Dutch) early May – I’have had the Opinion and one or two other things on my mind since.

As Ms Kokott summarises, the present request for a preliminary ruling concerns Polbud’s plan to change its legal form to that of a private limited liability company governed by Luxembourg law. Since Luxembourg, like all other Member States, requires as a condition of incorporation and continued existence under national law that companies have a statutory seat in national territory, such a plan necessarily entails the transfer of Polbud’s statutory seat. Indeed, this appears to have been achieved inasmuch as Consoil was entered in the Luxembourg Companies Register. It must now be clarified, in essence, whether the freedom of establishment precludes that arrangement. What sets the situation in this case apart is the fact that, according to the information contained in the request for a preliminary ruling, the cross-border conversion is not accompanied by a change to the centre of the company’s commercial activities. The referring court asks whether, in that context, the freedom of establishment is applicable (third question), whether that freedom has been restricted (first question) and, if so, whether that restriction is justifiable (second question).

The AG takes us through relevant precedent (readers of the blog will have seen my reviews at the time of judgment): one is best left to simply read her Opinion.  Ms Kokott concludes that the freedom of establishment provided for in Articles 49 and 54 TFEU only applies to an operation whereby a company incorporated under the law of one Member State transfers its statutory seat to another Member State with the aim of converting itself into a company governed by the law of the latter Member State, in so far as that company actually establishes itself in the other Member State, or intends to do so, for the purpose of pursuing genuine economic activity there.

In other words she most  definitely proposes a test along the lines suggested by Darmon AG in Daily Mail, but rejected by La Pergola AG in Centros. So far, so good: AG’s often propose a change of tack, most famously Poiares Maduro in Cartesio. Except, Ms Kokott suggests the Opinion is a simple confirmation of the CJEU’s case-law on the issue: no change of tack. Simply confirmation ex multi. That now does leave me puzzled: the Opinion walks and talks like confirming old precedent; but it does not, surely?

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 7.

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KA Finanz. The CJEU finds it does not need to entertain the corporate exception in European PIL and turns to EU corporate law instead.

Thank you, Matthias Storme, for alerting me late last night that judgment was issued in Case C-483/13 KA Finanz AG. The CJEU is asked to clarify the ‘corporate exception’ to the Rome Convention and subsequent Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations. The two main questions ask whether the ‘company law’ excepted area includes (a) reorganisations such as mergers and divisions, and (b) in connection with reorganisations, the creditor protection provision in Article 15 of Directive 78/855 concerning mergers of public limited liability companies, and of its successor, Directive 2011/35. I have a little more on the background in previous posting and I expressed my disappointment with Bot AG’s Opinion here.

The Court, like the AG, justifiably rejects a great deal of the questions as inadmissible, mainly due to the secondary law, interpretation of which is sought, not applying ratione temporis, to the facts at issue. It then in essence simply turns to European company law, in particular Directive 2005/56, to settle the issue. Why exhaust oneself with analysis of the corporate exception, if a different piece of EU law exhaustively regulates the issue? At 56 ff

It is stated in Article 2(2)(a) of Directive 2005/56 that a merger by acquisition is an operation whereby one or more companies, on being dissolved without going into liquidation, transfer all their assets and liabilities to another existing company, namely the acquiring company.

As regards the effects of such an operation, it is stated in Article 14(2)(a) of Directive 2005/56 that a cross-border merger brings about, from the date when the merger takes effect, the transfer of all the assets and liabilities of the company being acquired to the acquiring company.A merger by acquisition therefore entails the acquisition by the acquiring company of the company being acquired in its entirety, without extinguishing the obligations that a winding-up would have brought about, and, without novation, has the effect of substituting the acquiring company for the company being acquired as party to all of the contracts concluded by the latter. Consequently, the law which was applicable to those contracts before the merger continues to be applicable after the merger. It follows that EU law must be interpreted as meaning that the law applicable following a cross-border merger by acquisition to the interpretation of a loan contract taken out by the acquired company, such as the loan contracts at issue in the main proceedings, to the performance of the obligations under the contract and to how those obligations are extinguished is the law which was applicable to that contract before the merger.

(here: German law).

I appreciate the narrow set of facts upon which the CJEU holds allows one to distinguish. The spirit of the Court’s judgment in my view must however be what I have advocated for some time. Other than for a narrow set of issues immediately surrounding the very creation, life and death of the merged company, for which lex societatis applies, European private international law upholds lex contractus (often: lex voluntatis: the law so chosen by the parties) for the considerable amount of contractual satellites involving a merger and similar operations. Rome I is fully engaged for these contracts, including its provisions on third party impact of a change in governing law (this is relevant where the parties to the merger, decide to amend applicable law of the inherited contracts).

Geert.

 (Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.5, Chapter 3, Heading 3.2.2 .

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Winter has truly arrived. Bot AG skates around lex societatis issues in KA Finanz.

In Case C-483/13 KA Finanz AG, the CJEU is asked to clarify the ‘corporate exception’ to the Rome Convention and subsequent Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations. The two main questions ask whether the ‘company law’ excepted area includes (a) reorganisations such as mergers and divisions, and (b) in connection with reorganisations, the creditor protection provision in Article 15 of Directive 78/855 concerning mergers of public limited liability companies, and of its successor, Directive 2011/35. I have a little more on the background in previous posting. The Opinion itself has a complete overview of the issues at stake.

I suggested in my previous posting that lest the complete file posted with the Court give more detail, quite a few of the preliminary questions might be considered inadmissible due to a lack of specification in the factual circumstances.

Bot AG, who opined yesterday (at the time of posting, the English version of the Opinion was not yet available), has considerably slimmed down the list of questions eligible for answer, due to the (non-) application ratione temporis of secondary EU law at issue: this includes the Rome I Regulation. However he also, more puzzlingly, skates around the question concerning the application of the corporate exception of the 1980 Rome Convention, despite the judgment which is being appealed with the referring court, having made that exception the corner piece of its conflicts analysis. In particular, it considered that the consequences of a merger are part of the corporate status of the company concerned and that the transfer of assets within the context of a merger consequently need to be assessed viz-a-viz the company’s lex societatis: Austrian law, and not, as suggested by claimants, German law as the lex contractus relevant to the assets concerned (bonds issued by the corporate predecessor of the new corporation).

The AG focuses his analysis entirely on the specific qualification of the contract at issue (conclusion: sui generis), and on Directive 2005/56. In paras 47-48, he suggests that contractual obligations of the bank’s predecessor, per Directive 2005/56, are transferred to the corporate successor, including the lex contractus of those agreements. One can build an assumption around those paras, that the AG suggests a narrow interpretation of the corporate exception to the Rome Convention, etc. However it is quite unusual for one to have to second-guess an AG’s Opinion. Judicial economy is usually the signature of the CJEU itself, not its Advocate Generals.

I am now quite curious what the CJEU will make of it all.

Geert.

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KA Finanz: On the ‘corporate exception’ of European private international law

In Case C-483/13 KA Finanz AG, the ECJ is asked to clarify the ‘corporate exception’ to the Rome Convention and subsequent Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations. The two main questions ask whether the ‘company law’ excepted area includes (a) reorganisations such as mergers and divisions, and (b) in connection with reorganisations, the creditor protection provision in Article 15 of Directive 78/855 concerning mergers of public limited liability companies, and of its successor, Directive 2011/35.

(Creditor protection, incidentally, was also addressed in C-557/13 Lutz, judgment held last week, within the context of insolvency proceedings. I shall have a posting on that case soon).

Reuters tells me ‘KA Finanz was split off from nationalised lender Kommunalkredit in an attempt to secure a sustainable future for the rest of the public sector finance specialist firm following the global financial crisis’. KA Finaz therefore is what is generally referred to as a ‘Bad Bank’.

The referring court, Austria’s Oberster Gerichtshof, would seem to be hedging its bets on whether the Rome Convention or the Regulation applies to the contract, and ditto for the 1978 Directive or the 2011 Directive aforementioned. The file may reveal more factual detail than the application as published, however the questions as phrased (namely quite speculatively rather than file related) probably will run into trouble on the admissability front, I imagine.

At the time of adoption of the convention, the Giuliano Lagarde Report went into a bit more detail as to what is and is not excluded:

Confirming this exclusion, the Group stated that it affects all the complex acts (contractual administrative, registration) which are necessary to the creation of a company or firm and to the regulation of its internal organization and winding up, i. e. acts which fall within the scope of company law. On the other hand, acts or preliminary contracts whose sole purpose is to create obligations between interested parties (promoters) with a view to forming a company or firm are not covered by the exclusion.

The subject may be a body with or without legal personality, profit-making or non-profit-making. Having regard to the differences which exist, it may be that certain relationships will be regarded as within the scope of company law or might be treated as being governed by that law (for example, societe de droit civil nicht-rechtsfahiger Verein, partnership, Vennootschap onder firma, etc.) in some countries but not in others. The rule has been made flexible in order to take account of the diversity of national laws.

Examples of ‘internal organization’ are: the calling of meetings, the right to vote, the necessary quorum, the appointment of officers of the company or firm, etc. ‘Winding-up’ would cover either the termination of the company or firm as provided by its constitution or by operation of law, or its disappearance by merger or other similar process.

At the request of the German delegation the Group extended the subparagraph (e) exclusion to the personal liability of members and organs, and also to the legal capacity of companies or firms. On the other hand the Group did not adopt the proposal that mergers and groupings should also be expressly mentioned, most of the delegations being of the opinion that mergers and groupings were already covered by the present wording.

This explanation does not necessarily of course clarify all. For instance, the Report would seem to suggest that ‘mergers and groupings’, at issue in KA Finanz, are covered by the exception. Presumably, given the nature of the remainder of the exception, this is limited to the actual final agreement creating the JV or merged company, and not to the complex set of agreements leading up to such creation, such as Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), or non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Along those lines and without at this time having revisited relevant scholarship outside my own, I would suggest creditor protection is not covered by the exception.

The Gerichtshof also seeks clarification on whether there areany requirements concerning the treatment of mergers in relation to conflict of laws to be inferred from European primary law such as the freedom of establishment under Article 49 TFEU, the freedom to provide services under Article 56 TFEU and the free movement of capital and payments under Article 63 TFEU, in particular as to whether the national law of the State of the outwardly merging company or the national law of the target company is to be applied?’ Again, without having seen more reference to fact in the actual referral, this question to me seems far too academic to prompt the ECJ into entertaining it.

The Court’s ledger shows the application as having been lodged on 31 October 2014. That means some movement on it ought to be expected soon.

Geert.

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Of Vikings, airlines and trade unions – The High Court in British Airways leaves a treasure trove of questions on ‘civil and commercial’

In  British Airways v Sindicato Espanol de Pilotos de Lineas Aereas – SEPLA, crucial consideration was whether the court had jurisdiction under the Brussels I Regulation to determine the claim brought by BA against SEPLA, a Spanish trade union, for damages and declaratory and injunctive relief alleging that strikes of Spanish airline pilots organised by SEPLA were unlawful under Spanish law in that they were in breach of the Claimants’ right to freedom of establishment and to provide cross border services under Articles 49 and 56 TFEU. The international federation of airline pilots association acted as anchor defendant (being domiciled in the UK at the time the action was introduced (it had since moved to Canada) and the case against both arguably being closely linked within the meaning of Article 6 of the Jurisdiction Regulation).

The High Court accepted the ‘knock-out point’ of defendant: that the matter was not ‘civil and commercial’ and therefore not within the scope of application of the Regulation. Field J argued with reference to the ECJ’s judgment in Viking (or more specifically, the AG’s Opinion in same) that ‘it remains the case that the source of the fundamental freedoms are treaty provisions imposing obligations on states‘, and that ‘a court having to decide whether SEPLA was in breach of Articles 49 and/or 56 TFEU will have to conduct a sensitive balancing exercise in which it weighs SEPLA’s constitutional right to strike and the fundamental right to strike which forms part of the general principles of Community Law against the fundamental freedoms enshrined in Articles 49 and 56. In my judgment, such an exercise will involve a resort to notions of public law rather than to private law.

I am not so sure. Firstly, the horizontal (i.e. between individuals) direct effect of the Treaty Articles concerned is quite established. Moreover, under the Eurocontrol and subsequent case-law formula, the public authority (here: merely a private organisation, a trade union, perhaps carrying out duties of a quasi-public law nature (the right to strike)) involved needs to have acted iure imperii. It is only if the legal relationship (not: the underlying applicable law) between the parties to the action is of a public law nature, giving one of them extraordinary authority which the other lacks, that the Regulation may not apply. There was no indication that the trade union in the specific case acted in some kind of iure imperii matter. This was not acte claire I would have thought, but the High Court evidently thought otherwise.

Geert.

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