Posts Tagged ECJ
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.
Ships classification and certification agencies: The immunity ship ain’t sailing according to Szpunar AG in Rina.
In C‑641/18 Szpunar AG opined on Tuesday and notes that the request of the referring court brings to mind the current debate about the influence of human rights on private international law. It seeks to ascertain whether and, if so, to what extent the scope of ‘civil and commercial’ in the Brussels Ia Regulation may be influenced by the interest in ensuring access to the courts, a right guaranteed by Article 47 Charter.
(The case itself is subject to Brussels I which did not yet include ‘acta iure imperii’. As the AG notes at 56, this is merely a clarification following CJEU interpretation of the previous concept.
Relatives of the victims, along with survivors of the sinking of the Al Salam Boccaccio ’98, a ship sailing under the flag of the Republic of Panama, which happened in 2006 on the Red Sea and caused the loss of more than a thousand lives, have brought an action before the District Court, Genoa against the companies Rina SpA et Ente Registro Italiano Navale. Claimants argue that the defendant’s certification and classification activities, the decisions they took and the instructions they gave, are to blame for the ship’s lack of stability and its lack of safety at sea, which are the causes of its sinking.
Defendants plead immunity from jurisdiction. They state that they are being sued in respect of certification and classification activities which they carried out as delegates of a foreign sovereign State, namely the Republic of Panama. They argue activities in question were a manifestation of the sovereign power of the foreign State and the defendants carried them out on behalf of and in the interests of that State.
The AG first of all reviews how the principle of customary international law concerning the jurisdictional immunity of States relates to the scope ratione materiae of Brussels Ia. He starts his analysis noting that in the absence of codification at international level (international conventions on the issue not having met with great success), the principle concerning the jurisdictional immunity of States remains to a large extent governed by customary international law.
There is little use in quoting large sections of the Opinion verbatim so please do refer to the actual text: the AG opines (referring ia to C-154/11 Mahamdia) that it is unnecessary to refer to the principle of customary international law concerning State immunity from jurisdiction when considering the scope ratione materiae of Brussels Ia. Those principles he suggests do play a role when it comes to enforcing any exercise of such jurisdiction against the will of the party concerned.
At 46: ‘the distinction between disputes which are civil or commercial matters and those which are not must be drawn by reference to the independent criteria of EU law identified by the Court in its case-law. Consequently, an act performed in the exercise of State authority (acta iure imperii) from the perspective of the law relating to immunity, is not necessarily the same as an act performed in the exercise of State authority according to the independent criteria of EU law.’ (The latter as readers of the blog will know, are not always clearly expressed; see ia my review of Buak).
In the second place, the AG then considers whether an action for damages brought against private-law entities concerning their classification and/or certification activities falls within the scope of BIa. At 83, following extensive review of the case-law (almost all of which I also reviewed on the blog and for earlier cases, in Chapter 2 of the Handbook), the AG opines that neither the fact that the acts in question were performed on behalf of and in the interests of the delegating State nor the possibility of the State’s incurring liability for harm caused by those acts, in itself conclusively characterises those acts as ones performed in the exercise of powers falling outside the scope of the ordinary legal rules applicable to relationships between private individuals. 814/79 Rüffer also makes a non-conclusive appearance.
At 95 then follows the core of the factual assessment: defendants’ role is limited to carrying out checks in accordance with a pre-defined regulatory framework. If, following the revocation of a certificate, a ship is no longer able to sail, that is because of the sanction which, as the defendants admitted at the hearing, is imposed by Panama law. Not acta iure imperii – the issue falls under Brussels Ia.
Finally, must as a result of a plea of immunity from jurisdiction a national court decline to exercise the jurisdiction which it ordinarily derives from the Regulation? In a section which will be interesting to public international lawyers, the AG reviews international and EU law (particularly Directive 2009/15) and concludes that there is no principle in international law which grants immunity to certification agencies in cases such as the one at hand.
To complete the analysis, the AG opines that should the Court disagree with his views on immunity, the national court’s views on jurisdiction would not be impacted by the right to court guarantees of the Charter, for there is no suggestion at all that the victims would not have proper access to Panamian courts for their action.
Note of course that the Opinion does not address lex causae.
(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 220.127.116.11.1.
In C-493/18 UB v VA, proceedings took place between UB, on the one hand, and VA, Tiger SCI, WZ, as UB’s trustee in bankruptcy, and Banque patrimoine et immobilier SA, on the other, concerning the sale of immovable property originally owned by UB and mortgages granted over that property by UB and the action taken by WZ to have those transactions declared ineffective as against the bankruptcy estate.
A little bit of factual background may be useful – for that reference is best made to the judgment. Essentially, an avoidance (insolvency pauliana) action was launched given suspicious transactions between UB and his sister. On 10 May 2011, UB was, on his own petition, declared bankrupt by Croydon County Court. On 1 July 2011, WZ was appointed UB’s trustee in bankruptcy, with effect from 6 July 2011. At WZ’s request, Croydon County Court authorised WZ on 26 October 2011 to bring an action before the French courts in order, first, to have the bankruptcy order registered and, second, to obtain a ruling that the sale of the properties referred to in paragraph 12 above and the mortgages granted over those properties to VA (‘the sales and mortgages at issue’) were transactions at an undervalue or for no consideration under the relevant United Kingdom bankruptcy law provisions. WZ thus sought a decision authorising the restitution of those properties to UB’s bankruptcy estate, for the purposes of their disposal. The French courts granted the declaration.
The legal issue under consideration is the reach of the Insolvency Regulation’s establishment of jurisdiction for the courts of the Member State of COMI. Does it extend to an action by a trustee in bankruptcy appointed by a court of the Member State in which the insolvency proceedings were opened (here: the UK) the purpose of which is to obtain a declaration that mortgages registered over immovable property situated in another Member State (here: France) and the sale of that property are ineffective as against the bankruptcy estate.
The CJEU correctly emphasises that the Insolvency Regulation old or new does not impose any rule conferring on the courts of the place where immovable property is located international jurisdiction to hear an action for the restitution of those assets to the bankruptcy estate in insolvency proceedings. Furthermore, concentrating all the actions directly related to the insolvency proceedings before the courts of the Member State within the territory of which with those proceedings were opened is consistent with the objective of improving the efficiency and speed of insolvency proceedings having cross-border effects. Support for this ex multi: Wiemer & Trachte.
The English courts therefore should have exercised jurisdiction per vis attractiva concursus – the file before the CJEU does not reveal its hesitation to do so. It does reveal that UB claims among others that the insolvency proceedings in England had already been concluded and presumably therefore the pauliana time-barred.
(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5 Heading 5.4.1. Chapter 2 Heading 18.104.22.168.1
In C‑212/18 Prato Nevoso Termo Energy the CJEU held on the not always straightforward concurrent application of the Waste Framework Directive (WFD) 98/2008 and the various Directives encouraging the uptake of renewable energy. It referred i.a. to the circular economy and to precaution.
On the face of it the economic and environmental benefits of the case may seem straightforward. Prato Nevoso operates a power plant for the production of thermal energy and electricity. It applied for authorisation to replace methane as the power source for its plant with a bioliquid, in this case a vegetable oil produced by ALSO Srl, derived from the collection and chemical treatment of used cooking oils, residues from the refining of vegetable oils and residues from the washing of the tanks in which those oils were stored. ALSO has a permit to market that oil as an ‘end-of-waste’ product within the meaning of relevant Italian law , for use in connection with the production of biodiesel, on condition that it has the physico-chemical characteristics indicated in that permit and that the commercial documents indicate ‘produced from recovered waste for use in biodiesel production’.
Prato Nevoso was refused the requested authorisation on the ground that the vegetable oil was not included in a relevant Italian list, which sets out the categories of biomass fuels that can be used in an installation producing atmospheric emissions without having to comply with the rules on the energy recovery of waste. The only vegetable oils in those categories are those from dedicated crops or produced by means of exclusively mechanical processes.
The argument subsequently brought was that the refusal violates Article 6 WFD’s rules on end-of-waste, and Article 13 of the RES Directive 2009/28. That Article essentially obliges the Member States to design administrative procedures in such a way as to support the roll-out of renewable energy.
The CJEU first of all refers to its finding in Tallina Vesi that Article 6(4) of Directive 2008/98 does not, in principle, allow a waste holder to demand the recognition of end-of-waste (EOW) status by the competent authority of the Member State or by a court of that Member State. MSs have a lot of flexibility in administering EOW in the absence of European standards. That the use of a substance derived from waste as a fuel in a plant producing atmospheric emissions is subject to the national legislation on energy recovery from waste, is therefore entirely possible (at 39). A13 of the RES Directive has no impact on that reality: that Article does not concern the regulatory procedures for the adoption of end-of-waste status criteria.
Nevertheless, the MS’ implementation of the RES Directives must not endanger the attainment of the WFD, including encouragement of the circular economy etc. and likewise, the WFD’s waste hierarchy has an impact on the RES’ objectives. A manifest error of assessment in relation to the non-compliance with the conditions set out in Article 6(1) of Directive 2008/98 could be found to be a MS violation of the Directive.
At 43: ‘It is necessary, in this case, to examine whether the Member State could, without making such an error, consider that it has not been demonstrated that the use of the vegetable oil at issue in the main proceedings, in such circumstances, allows the conclusion that the conditions laid down in that provision are met and, in particular, that that use is devoid of any possible adverse impact on the environment and human health.’ At 44: ‘It is for the national court, which alone has jurisdiction to establish and assess the facts, to determine whether that is the case in the main proceedings and, in particular, to verify that the non-inclusion of those vegetable oils in the list of authorised fuels results from a justified application of the precautionary principle.’
At 45 ff the CJEU does give a number of indications to the national judge, suggesting that no such infringement of the precautionary principle has occurred (including the reality that specific treatment and specific uses envisaged of the waste streams, has an impact on their environmental and public health safety). At 57: It must be considered that the existence of a certain degree of scientific uncertainty regarding the environmental risks associated with a substance — such as the oils at issue in the main proceedings — ceasing to have waste status, may lead a Member State, taking into account the precautionary principle, to decide not to include that substance on the list of authorised fuels’.
An important judgment.
Handbook of EU Waste law, 2nd ed. 2015, OUP, 1.166 ff and 1.189 ff.
Dinant Bar v maître JN. CJEU confirms Bar membership fees are in principle neither civil and commercial nor contractual.
The CJEU on Thursday last week largely confirmed Saugmansdgaard ØE’s Opinion which I reviewed here, in C-421/18 Dinant Bar v maître JN, however with different emphasis than the AG. The Court insists that in accordance with Belgian law, registration with the bar association constitutes a legal obligation to which practising as a professional lawyer is subject, and that individuals wishing to practise that profession must be a member of a bar association and must comply with decisions taken by that association, notably as regards the payment of fees.
Disputes concerning those fees then are not civil and commercial and therefore not covered by Brussels I a, unless,
‘in so far as those fees constitute consideration for services freely consented to, including insurance services, which that bar association may have negotiated with a third party with a view to obtaining more advantageous terms for its lawyer members, the obligation to pay those fees would be of a contractual nature and, therefore, an action initiated with a view to ensuring that that obligation is performed would come within the scope of Article 7(1)(a) of Regulation No 1215/2012. It is for the referring court to ascertain whether that is the case in the dispute in the main proceedings’.
The AG had emphasised the factual circumstances of the case, in which the Bar had lowered the fees for maître JN to the very insurance premium only. In most cases of course Bar fees disputes probably will be about more than that and the Court’s approach may lead to split (non)applicability of Brussels Ia, in which payments for services freely consented to will have to be distinguished from those due in return for public service obligations. (Bar councils may wish to split these sums in their yearly invoice).
Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 22.214.171.124